Friday 24 November 2017

Bill Cosby rape trial gets under way in LA

As the veteran comedian prepares to stand trial for sexual assault, Harriet Alexander examines the details of the long-running saga

HIGH PROFILE CASE: Bill Cosby pictured earlier this year. Picture: Getty
HIGH PROFILE CASE: Bill Cosby pictured earlier this year. Picture: Getty

Harriet Alexander

For a man who broke boundaries in black America, it was perhaps only a matter of time until race issues raised their ugly head.

Bill Cosby will go on trial tomorrow for sexual assault - finally being judged by a jury after almost 60 women came forward to accuse him of drugging and raping them over five decades.

The case will feature only one accuser, Andrea Constand, and a supporting witness after all of the other women found their cases fell out of the statute of limitations.

But it is a trial that will rival that of OJ Simpson and Oscar Pistorius in its media intensity. And, as the date drew nearer, race was brought to the fore.

Judge Steve O'Neill, hearing the case, began the process of jury selection on May 22 in Pittsburgh - at the courtroom for Pennsylvania's Allegheny county.

The trial itself will be heard in Norristown, 300 miles away, in Montgomery county. Cosby's lawyers successfully argued that pre-trial publicity made it more difficult finding a fair and impartial jury in that area.

They also sought a jury pool from a more diverse, urban community.

The 79-year-old's legal team soon spoke out about skin colour. Brian McMonagle, his lead defence lawyer, was angered by the prosecution's rejection of a black juror. "This systematic exclusion of African Americans," he raged. The judge disagreed.

After three days of arguing, 12 jurors and six alternates were chosen from a pool of 100. Two black jurors were chosen - one man and one woman.

The other 10 - six men and four women - are white.

The defence has now accepted the jury, which is roughly 17 per cent black - higher than the 13 per cent average for the area.

"It's a terrific jury made up of people of all demographics," said Kevin Steele, the Montgomery County district attorney. "We're past all of this nonsense about the optics and things."

From tomorrow they will be sequestered, housed in an unidentified hotel for the two weeks the trial is expected to last.

On Thursday, at a hastily-convened final session with the prosecution and defence, Judge O'Neill warned the press of "serious repercussions" if they attempted to approach the jury.

He is right to be prepared for a media circus. Norristown court will allow 120 reporters and 60 members of the press, and protests may well take place.

Of the around 60 women who have come forward to accuse Cosby, 31 of them are represented by Gloria Allred - the high-profile LA-based womens' rights lawyer, who has labelled the veteran entertainer "deceptive, manipulative and disgusting".

Monday's case will also be the first time that his accuser, Miss Constand, now 53, has appeared.

A former basketball coach, she moved home to Canada shortly after the 2004 incident and has turned down every interview request. She did not appear at any of the pre-trial hearings which have taken place since Cosby's December 2015 arrest.

A list of more than 30 potential trial witnesses has been called, including Cosby's long-serving pilot, his private chef, several members of Miss Constand's family, and expert witnesses on sexual abuse counselling and memory.

Absent from the proceedings, however, will be Cosby's wife of 53 years, Camille, who has stood by him - fighting tooth and nail to avoid having to testify. When she was eventually ordered to do so, she was a "hostile witness" - refusing to answer most questions, and frequently walking out of court.

And Cosby himself, just three weeks ago, said he thought racism was at play.

Asked by the American radio host, Michael Smerconish, to comment on the recent statement from one of his four daughters, Ensa, 44 - that "racism has played a big role in all aspects of this scandal" - Cosby replied: "Could be. Could be."

His answer continued: "I can't say anything, but there are certain things that I look at, and I apply to the situation, and there are so many tentacles.

"So many different - 'nefarious' is a great word.

"I just truly believe that some of it may very well be that."


Sunday Independent

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