NORRISTOWN — Disgraced US megastar comedian Bill Cosby returns to trial Monday for alleged sexual assault, a tougher legal fight the second time around and the most high-profile criminal case so far in a #MeToo world.
The now frail and isolated 80-year-old could spend the rest of his life behind bars if convicted of drugging and molesting former university employee Andrea Constand at his Philadelphia home in 2004.
The pioneering black entertainer’s first trial ended in a hung jury on June 17, with a sequestered panel hopelessly deadlocked after six days of testimony and 52 hours of deliberations.
The case forever tarnished the legacy of an actor once adored by millions as “America’s Dad” for his seminal role as a lovable father and obstetrician on hit 1984-92 television series The Cosby Show.
In recent years, some 60 women have accused the Emmy winner, who today claims to be legally blind, of being a serial predator, alleging that he drugged and assaulted them over a span of 40 years.
Yet three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Constand, who now lives in Canada, are the only criminal charges to stick, with most of the alleged abuse having occurred too long ago to prosecute.
But the second trial is likely to be dramatically different from the first when opening statements begin at the courthouse in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown.
Judge Steven O’Neill has agreed to let five other Cosby accusers testify, compared to just one the last time, handing a major victory to prosecutors, who will seek to paint Cosby as a serial predator.
MICHAEL JACKSON’S LAWYER
“This is the most significant difference between the two trials and is a substantial problem for the defense,” said Melissa Gomez, a Philadelphia-based jury expert.
The most well-known of the five is 63-year-old model Janice Dickinson, who says Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in 1982.
“More accusers creates a consensus,” Gomez told AFP. “It is much easier to attack the credibility of one person than it is six.”
The defense team has also changed, now headed by Los Angeles celebrity import Tom Mesereau, with his distinctive mane of thick white hair, known for getting Michael Jackson acquitted of child molestation.
Last time, Cosby did not testify and the defense spent just minutes presenting their case, arguing that there was no evidence to convict.
This time, O’Neill has warned the trial may last a month. He also handed a win to the defense in allowing testimony from a former co-worker who alleges that Constand schemed against Cosby.
Lawyers may also be able to make public the amount of money that Cosby paid Constand in a civil suit to settle her claim in 2006, which could strengthen efforts to portray her as a scheming money-grabber.
Mesereau’s hardball tactics have already been in evidence in a failed attempt to get the judge booted off the case for alleged bias because his wife works with sexual assault victims.
The defense has also moved to strike one juror from the trial for being allegedly overheard saying: “I just think he’s guilty, so we can all be done and get out of here.”
Permeating the entire case is the #MeToo movement, which erupted in October and has seen the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey shamed and stripped of their positions for alleged sexual misconduct.
Experts say the cultural watershed may make jurors more inclined to believe victims.
“It’s like a fog,” said William Brennan, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer who has followed the trial.
At the time of the alleged assault, Constand was the director of women’s basketball at Temple University, where the actor sat on the board of trustees. She will take the stand again second time around.
In a 2005 deposition, Cosby said he gave Constand an over-the-counter antihistamine to relieve stress and that they had consensual relations, but admitted obtaining sedatives with a view to having sex.
The case boils down to he-said, she-said. There is no physical evidence, and many still remember Cosby as a beloved entertainer.
Twelve jurors — five women and seven men, 10 white and two black — together with six alternates, are to be sequestered.
Cosby, who was lauded as a hero by African Americans and revered by whites for smashing through racial barriers, is best remembered for his role as Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
One of the most popular television series in history, it propelled the son of a maid and a US Navy cook into a life of fame and wealth. — AFP