NORRISTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A judge refused to throw out the sexual assault case against Bill Cosby on Wednesday, sweeping aside claims that a previous district attorney had granted the comedian immunity from prosecution a decade ago.
Common Pleas Judge Steven O'Neill issued the ruling after a hard-fought two-day hearing.
The case now moves to a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to try the 78-year-old Cosby on charges he drugged and violated former Temple University athletic department employee Andrea Constand at his suburban Philadelphia home in 2004. The TV star could get up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
In 2005, then-District Attorney Bruce Castor decided the case was too flawed to prosecute. But Castor's successors reopened the investigation last year after Cosby's lurid, decade-old testimony from Constand's civil suit was unsealed at the request of The Associated Press and after dozens of other women came forward with similar accusations that destroyed Cosby's nice-guy image as America's Dad.
At the hearing this week, Cosby's lawyers tried to get the case thrown out by putting Castor himself on the stand. Castor testified that in deciding not to charge Cosby, he intended to forever close the door on prosecuting the comedian. He said he considered his decision binding on his successors.
Similarly, Cosby's lawyers said they never would have let the TV star testify in the civil case if they didn't believe criminal charges were off the table.
"In this case, the prosecution should be stopped in its tracks," Cosby lawyer Chris Tayback argued. "Really what we're talking about here is honoring a commitment."
But current District Attorney Kevin Steele questioned whether Castor ever made such an agreement, since it was never put in writing on a legal document and the Cosby attorney with whom Castor dealt is now dead. Steele argued that in any case, Castor had no legal authority to make such a deal.
PHOTOS: Bill Cosby through the years
Bill Cosby through the years
Judge says Bill Cosby sex assault case can proceed
July 1973: The actor, Bill Cosby, in Perth. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 16: Actor Bill Cosby leaves his New York City home accompanied by his wife, Camille (L,) and a young woman with her hands over her face, believed to be one of his four daughters, enroute to Los Angeles, CA, 16 January 1997 after his son Enis William Cosby was found shot to death along a California freeway. The young Cosby, 28, was found in a pool of blood after he stopped to change a flat tire. (Photo credit should read BOB STRONG/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : Actor and comedian Bill Cosby (R) and his wife Camille arrive at the White House 06 December for a reception prior to being honored at the 21st annual national Kennedy Center Honors. Cosby and the other honorees will be saluted later 06 December at a performance in the Kennedy Center's Opera House. AFP PHOTO/CHRIS KLEPONIS (Photo credit should read CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Co-hosts Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby joke with each other during the opening of the 2000 Essence Awards 14 April, 2000 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Actor Danny Glover and basketball star Michael Jordan were two of the honorees at the ceremonies sponsored by Essence Magazine. AFP PHOTO/Matt CAMPBELL (Photo credit should read MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images)
386603 06: Rachel Robinson and Actor Bill Cosby, who was the Master of Ceremonies, share a moment March 12, 2001 at The Jackie Robinson Foundation 2001 Awards Dinner at The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. (Photo by George De Sota/Newsmakers)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Actor Bill Cosby arrives at the NBC 75th Anniversary Special at Rockefeller Plaza in New York 05 May 2002. The actual anniversary fell on 15 November, 2001. AFP PHOTO Doug KANTER (Photo credit should read DOUG KANTER/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 9: Actor Comedian Bill Cosby shows off the Presidential Medal of Freedom he received from U.S. President George W. Bush during a ceremony July 9, 2002 at the White House in Washington, DC. The medal is the highest civilian award given to those who have made meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
PHILIDELPHIA - MAY 22: Comedian and member of the Board of Trustees of Temple University Bill Cosby enters the arena prior to speaking to the graduates of the Class of 2003 at Temple University's commencement ceremony in The Liacouras Center May 22, 2003 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Don Murray/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 21: Actor Bill Cosby poses backstage with his 'Bob Hope Humanitarian' award during the 55th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium September 21, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 12: Comedian Bill Cosby introduces the film 'Fat Albert' at Temple University's Liacouras Center for the world premiere of 'Fat Albert' December 12, 2004 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The film, based on Bill Cosby's 'Fat Albert' cartoon series of the 70's, opens nationwide Christmas day. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - DECEMBER 11: Comedian Bill Cosby performs at the Apollo Theater on December 11, 2005 In New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 14: (AFP OUT) Entertainer Bill Cosby speaks during a taping of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios October 14, 2007 in Washington, DC. Cosby spoke on the new book he co-authored 'Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 19: Bill Cosby arrives at the Esquie Magazine and Village Academies event honoring Bill Cosby at Esquire North November 19, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 26: Comedian Bill Cosby poses for photographers at the 12th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the John F. Kennedy Center on October 26, 2009 in Washington, DC. Cosby is this year's honoree. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JUNE 08: Bill Cosby and his wife Camille Cosby speak onstage at the Apollo Theater 75th Anniversary Gala at The Apollo Theater on June 8, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA - APRIL 6: Bill Cosby, Ed.D. poses for pictures before accepting the Marian Anderson Award at a gala concert produced in partnership with The Philadelphia Orchestra April 6, 2010 at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MARCH 08: Comedian Bill Cosby attends the Jackie Robinson Foundation Annual Awards Dinner at the The Waldorf Astoria on March 8, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The Jackie Robinson Foundation)
LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 09: Actor/comedian Bill Cosby speaks onstage during Andre Agassi Foundation for Education's 15th Grand Slam for Children benefit concert at the Wynn Las Vegas October 9, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The event raises funds to help improve education for underserved youth in the Las Vegas community. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 02: Comedian Bill Cosby promotes new book 'I Didn't Ask To Be Born: But I'm Glad I Was' at the Barnes & Noble, 5th Avenue on November 2, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 10: Bill Cosby accepts the Impact Award for 'The Cosby Show' with (L-R) actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner, presenter Stevie Wonder, actors Raven-Symone and Sabrina LeBeauf onstage at the 9th Annual TV Land Awards at the Javits Center on April 10, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 07: Host Bill Cosby speaks onstage at the 2011 Jackie Robinson Foundation awards gala atThe Waldorf=Astoria on March 7, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for The Jackie Robinson Foundation)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 14: Bill Cosby performs during the Screen Gems Presents The Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on May 14, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation)
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 13: Actor Bill Cosby gestures to the crowd after throwing out the first pitch prior to the game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees on September 13, 2012 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 05: Bill Cosby hosts the Jackie Robinson Foundation Awards Gala at The Waldorf=Astoria on March 5, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for The Jackie Robinson Foundation)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JUNE 15: Actor/comedian Bill Cosby speaks onstage during the 100th anniversary celebration of the Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows supporting the Motion Picture & Television Fund and the American Comedy Fund hosted by Bill Cosby at the Beverly Hills Hotel on June 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for BHH)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 06: Bill Cosby performs at the 7th annual 'Stand Up For Heroes' event at Madison Square Garden on November 6, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 22: Bill Cosby speaks during the 55th Anniversary of Ben's Chili Bowl on August 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 04: Dr. Bill Cosby speaks onstage at the The Jackie Robinson Foundation Annual Awards' Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on March 4, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for The Jackie Robinson Foundation)
LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 26: Comedian/actor Bill Cosby performs at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino on September 26, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26: Comedian Bill Cosby addresses the Press Room during the 2014 American Comedy Awards at Hammerstein Ballroom on April 26, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 10: Actor/comedian Bill Cosby performs onstage at Funny Or Die Clubhouse + Facebook Pop-Up HQ @ SXSW - Day 2 on March 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26: Comedian Bill Cosby attends 2014 American Comedy Awards at Hammerstein Ballroom on April 26, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, FL - NOVEMBER 21: Actor Bill Cosby performs at the King Center for the Performing Arts on November 21, 2014 in Melbourne, Florida. (Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)
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"A secret agreement that allows a wealthy defendant to buy his way out of a criminal case isn't right," Steele told the judge.
On the stand, Castor defended his decision not to bring charges, citing among other things Constand's yearlong delay in reporting the allegations, her continued contact with Cosby, and suggestions that she and her mother might have tried to extort the comic.
The former DA said he made the no-prosecution commitment in hopes of prodding Cosby to testify in Constand's lawsuit without invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In the end, Cosby testified, denying he assaulted Constand but admitting among other things that he obtained quaaludes to give to women he wanted to seduce, and Constand eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.
As the case goes forward, Cosby's lawyers are expected to fight mightily to keep the deposition from being introduced at trial.
Castor tried to make a comeback as DA last fall but lost to Steele in a hotly contested race, during which Steele ran ads criticizing Castor for not prosecuting Cosby when he had the chance. The tension between the two men was on display Wednesday when Steele accused Castor and the Cosby camp of engaging in "revisionist history."
Most of the back-and-forth in court hinged on the wording and interpretation of a 2005 press release in which Castor announced he would not prosecute Cosby. Castor found himself sparring with prosecutors over many seemingly inconsistent statements he made over the years on whether Cosby could still be charged.
The judge said he struggled to find similar cases where a suspect who was never charged received a promise that he would never be prosecuted. Normally, immunity is granted after a suspect is charged because he or she can provide testimony or information to prosecutors.
While more than 50 women have accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them since the 1960s, the statute of limitations for prosecuting the comic has run out in nearly every instance. This is the only case in which he has been charged.