New York (AFP) – Disgraced US megastar comedian Bill Cosby goes back on trial next week for alleged sexual assault dating back 14 years in a legal fight made tougher the second time round with more witnesses 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.
But the case irrevocably damaged the legacy of an actor 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.”
Around 60 women have publicly accused the Emmy-winner, who now claims to be legally blind, of being a serial sexual predator, alleging that he drugged and assaulted them over a span of 40 years.
But 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 too long ago to prosecute.
The second time around, no one expects a simple re-run at the court house in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown in Pennsylvania.
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 the prosecution, who will seek to paint Cosby as a serial predator.
– Michael Jackson’s lawyer –
“People are willing to believe that an apparent victim is lying. But it’s a lot harder to believe that five of them are,” says Daniel Filler, dean and law professor at Drexel University’s Thomas Kline School of Law.
“It’s tremendous trouble for the defense. It’s like fighting a war on multiple fronts,” agreed William Brennan, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer who has followed the trial.
The #MeToo movement, which has seen powerful men from Hollywood to politics to the media shamed and stripped of their positions for sexual misconduct, has led to a cultural watershed in US society.
“This is a moment when I imagine more jurors will be more comfortable believing women victims of sex violence,” says Filler.
But it is still a tough case to prove. There is no physical evidence. It essentially boils down to a case of he-said, she-said, and many still remember Cosby as a beloved entertainer.
Another new development is Cosby’s lead defense attorney — Los Angeles celebrity lawyer Tom Mesereau — best 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.
Mesereau has tried repeatedly to delay the trial, even demanding that the judge be kicked off the case for alleged bias because his wife works with sexual assault victims.
– Sequestered jury –
O’Neill has also handed a win to the defense in allowing testimony from a witness 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 allegations in 2006.
That could potentially strengthen defense efforts to portray Constand as a scheming money-grabber.
Twelve jurors — five women and seven men — and six alternates were chosen in four days of court proceedings. The panel is set to be sequestered on Sunday, with opening statements due Monday.
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.
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 said the incident left her “humiliated.” In a 2005 deposition, Cosby said he gave Constand an over-the-counter antihistamine to relieve stress and that they had consensual relations. But he admitted obtaining sedatives with a view to having sex.
“Ultimately, it’s more going to be about her credibility,” says Julie Rendelman, a New York lawyer who has defended sexual assault cases.