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Reporter’s instincts, deep preparation break stunning news of Cosby case reversal and prison release

Bill Cosby, center, listens to members of his team speak with the media outside his home in Elkins Park, Pa., June 30, 2021, after Pennsylvania's highest court overturned his sex assault conviction and released him from prison. From left are: spokesperson Andrew Wyatt, atttorney Jennifer Bonjean, Cosby, attorney Brian Perry and attorney Ashley Cohen. The court found that an agreement with a previous prosecutor prevented Cosby from being charged in the case. The 83-year-old Cosby had served more than two years at the state prison near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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Comedian Bill Cosby had been in a Pennsylvania prison for more than two years last December when the state’s high court took on his appeal of his sexual assault conviction for drugging Temple University employee Andrea Constand for sex in 2004.

As seven months went by without a decision, legal affairs reporter Maryclaire Dale — who had been instrumental in breaking the original Cosby story — thought there might be something newsy in the works. Her instincts led to deep preparation that put AP ahead on one of the biggest news stories of the summer, one that almost no one but the Philadelphia-based Dale had anticipated.

Dale,who has been covering Cosby for years,thought something might be imminent as the month came to a close. She worked with East Desk editor Sophie Rosenbaum on preparation while procuring file photos in case a decision did come down.

Her instincts proved right.

Dale and Harrisburg reporter Mark Scolforo kept close tabs on the court’s docket Wednesday morning. When the court tweeted out the opinion at 12:30 p.m.,saying Cosby’s prosecution was unfair because of a previous prosecutor’s promise that he was not a criminal target,violating his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, the AP was ready.

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Bill Cosby reacts outside his home in Elkins Park, Pa., June 30,2021, after Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned his sex assault conviction and released him from prison. – AP Photos / Matt Slocum, Matt Rourke

Minutes later,a news alert moved,followed less than one minute later with a short breaking news story that Cosby’s conviction was overturned,and that the man once known as “America’s Dad” would be released from prison. Both news alerts beat all the competition.

Less than two minutes after the second alert,a full story appeared on the wire.

The order for Cosby’s immediate release came as a stunner: Legal experts had said that would be extraordinary.

“It was a hunch,but it was not the issue I thought they would reverse it on,” Dale said of the court’s decision,which she and Scolforo had read over carefully before the alert to make sure they had it right.

She also anticipated that the 83-year-old Cosby could be freed within hours, urging AP journalists to hurry to Cosby’s prison in suburban Montgomery County.

Photographers Matt Slocum and Matt Rourke and Northeastern Pennsylvania correspondent Mike Rubinkam were mobilized to get in place for visuals. Dale set up a Zoom interview with Cosby attorney Jennifer Bonjean, who spoke while riding in her car to the prison. The team also produced a newsroom-ready analysis video featuring Dale:

Later the same day, Dale collaborated with Boston’s Alanna Durkin Richer on an Explainer that laid out the court’s decision while AP Entertainment gathered reaction.

The next day,Dale dove into a legal analysis, while New York writer Jocelyn Noveck wrote a powerful piece on what Cosby’s release means for the #MeToo movement,which Noveck has covered in depth. All of which would have made for a solid week,but aside from the intensive Cosby coverage, Dale managed to break another significant story last week: Charges have been brought in a years-old college sexual assault case after a previous exclusive by Dale revealed systemic failures to find justice even after an apparent confession by the alleged rapist.

Wednesday’s original Cosby story drew more than 400,000 engagements on Facebook and nearly 924,000 pageviews on apnews.com,with about half of the traffic coming from Google search/Google News. It maintained the top spot in the news carousel on Google for the whole day.

For smart anticipation and flawless execution that put AP ahead on a story that dominated the news cycle, Dale earns AP’s Best of the Week award.

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