Bill Cosby sex assault trial: Lawyers on both sides face uphill battle in selecting unbiased jurors

As jury selection is set to begin for Bill Cosby’s sexual assault criminal trial, lawyers on both sides are facing significant obstacles in securing 12 jurors who can decide the high-profile case without bias, and who are willing to spend an extended period away from home.

As the Associated Press (AP) reports, Cosby arrived at a Pittsburgh courthouse, in Montgomery County, Monday morning ahead of jury selection. A judge had previously ruled that while the trial will take place in Montgomery County, the juror pool will come from Allegheny County, elsewhere in Pennsylvania, to help mitigate any bias from potential jurors who may have been overexposed to news and discussions about the sexual assault accusations.

But that’s only one challenge. The trial venue is about 300 miles away from Allegheny County and jurors can expect to be sequestered there for at least two weeks when the trial begins in early June. There may be difficulty in finding jurors able and willing to live in seclusion far from home.

Cosby’s international fame and previously family-friendly public persona also present an obstacle.

“You want to see if they’re a celebrity-conscious person — if they read celebrity stuff, if they worship celebrity,” trial consultant Howard Varinsky told AP. “Prosecutors have to be very worried about fans.”

Cosby rose to fame as a stand-up comedian who frequently mined material from his own family and children. He was the face of kid-friendly Jell-o products for several years, and cemented his place in pop culture as the strict but loving head of a well-to-do family in the beloved 1980s sitcom The Cosby Show.

The sex assault accusations, which formally began in 2000 when an alleged victim attempted to bring criminal charges against him, presented a stark contrast to the wholesome-seeming family man who cast himself as a morally upright pillar of the black community. Since that time, another alleged victim attempted to bring criminal charges against him, and several other accusers filed civil suits.

Cosby’s longstanding popularity and positive reputation may in part explain why some accusers were ignored or dismissed when they first came forward. This could also make it difficult to identify potential jurors who can separate his pop culture legacy from the man accused of drugging and/or raping dozens of women since the 1960s.

But his upcoming trial concerns only the charges stemming from one alleged assault, and though prosecutors had requested that 13 other accusers could serve as witnesses, only one of them will be permitted to testify.

Andrea Constand, a former Temple university basketball director, went to police in 2004 to report that Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted her the year before. As AP reports, the District Attorney declined to press charges at the time, as was the case four years earlier when an alleged victim accused Cosby of assaulting her in his Manhattan townhouse.

In 2005, Constand filed a civil suit, with 13 fellow accusers as witnesses, which was settled for an undisclosed sum.

As part of the settlement, Cosby gave sworn testimony about a number of sexual encounters with women that by his own admission may not have been entirely consensual. He also admitted to giving the alleged victims drugs, including Quaaludes.

That testimony prompted new prosecutors to open a new criminal investigation into charges that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted Constand. Cosby, 78, faces up to ten years in prison if convicted.

The dramatic, controversial case and its many moving parts — Cosby’s advancing age, his near-blindness, and social media-based outrage that his alleged victims were not taken seriously for so many years — mean that potential jurors may knowingly or unconsciously have a leaning regarding Cosby’s guilt or innocence, the trial consultant said.

“In a normal case, juries are all banging the door to get out, bringing up every hardship in the world,” Varinsky told AP. “But on this case, you’re going to see people that may lie to get on, and people who convince themselves that they can be fair, but they can’t.”

Potential jurors will be dismissed for cause of they openly admit to having strong feelings one way or another. But it’s the less open jurors that attorneys on both sides should be worried about.

“Whatever side you’re on, you have to really weed through this,” Varinsky said. “I’m looking (as a consultant) for every single micro-expression, each body movement.”


Photo:[(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar), New York Magazine/Amanda Demme]