Cosby’s lawyers fight to keep 19 other accusers out of court

BY JEREMY ROEBUCK
PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/TNS

JESSICA GRIFFIN/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/TNS
Bill Cosby exits the Montgomery County Courthouse
after a pretrial hearing in a sexual assault case
Tuesday in Norristown, Pa.
NORRISTOWN, Pa. – Bill Cosby’s attorneys took aim Tuesday at prosecutors’ plans to call 19 other accusers at the entertainer’s April retrial, condemning it as a bid to paper over their weak case and score a victory amid a wider cultural reckoning with Hollywood’s casting couch culture.

The women’s decades-old, unproven and ultimately irrelevant allegations, said defense lawyer Becky S. James, would unfairly stack the deck against the 80-year-old comedian and make it impossible for him to receive a fair trial.

“With the current atmosphere, it’s going to be hard enough to get the jury to focus on the trial at hand,” James said, referencing her concerns on how the #MeToo movement might affect the trial’s outcome. “But bringing in additional accusers – especially 19 of them – in that environment would be highly prejudicial.”

Decision next week
Her arguments came as Cosby returned to a Norristown courtroom Tuesday for a rematch on an issue that dominated debate in the run-up to the 80-year-old comedian’s first sexual assault trial last year and promises again to be the defining question that could reshape his second:

How many additional accusers — if any — will Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill allow prosecutors to put before the jury?

O’Neill did not rule on the issue Tuesday, saying that making up his mind would require “exhaustive” research. But he added that his decision could come sometime next week.

June mistrial
In the last trial, which ended in a mistrial in June, the judge permitted testimony from only one additional accuser, although he did not offer an explanation.

O’Neill said before starting anew this week that he did not consider himself bound by that earlier ruling.

Prosecutors say the testimony from the 19 women — all of whom allege Cosby drugged and assaulted them in incidents dating back as far as the 1960s — is crucial to bolstering the claims of their case’s central accuser, Andrea Constand.

Three blue pills
The former Temple University women’s basketball manager first came forward in 2005, alleging that Cosby had offered her three blue pills during a trip to his Cheltenham mansion and assaulted her after she passed out.

Each of the 19 women’s accounts bears striking similarities to Constand’s story, Assistant District Attorney Adrienne D. Jappe told O’Neill on Tuesday.

In every case, she said, Cosby approached them as a mentor figure, later offering them drugs and taking advantage of them when they were powerless to respond.

“The conduct undertaken by the defendant in this case of intentionally intoxicating young women and then sexually assaulting them over 40 years is unprecedented,” Jappe said.

Influenced by news
But James countered that those similarities in their stories should give O’Neill pause.

All but one of the 19 women whom prosecutors have identified first came forward publicly either during Constand’s 2005 civil suit against Cosby or in 2014, when a parade of more than 50 women appeared nightly on cable news shows to share their own stories of abuse by the comedian.

Many of the women flagged by prosecutors have admitted that their own memories of being drugged and assaulted by Cosby were shaped by the stories of others they saw on the news.

Judge ponders role
O’Neill, during six hours of argument over two days, has appeared preoccupied with defining what his role should be in the process.

At one point, he asked James whether it was his job to determine each additional accuser’s credibility or if his primary focus should be determining whether their allegations are relevant or unfairly prejudice Cosby.

Questioning Jappe a day earlier, the judge wondered aloud whether all 19 women were necessary and, if not, just how many additional accusers would unfairly tip the balance of the trial against Cosby.

“If I said 19 is too many,” O’Neill asked at one point, “then where do we go?”

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