Norristown (United States) (AFP) – Disgraced US megastar Bill Cosby paid $3.38 million to a former university employee who accused him of sexual assault, a court heard Monday in a dramatic start to the first such celebrity trial of the #MeToo era.
The now frail and isolated 80-year-old Cosby could spend the rest of his life behind bars if convicted in his retrial of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand, 44, at his Philadelphia home in 2004.
The case has besmirched the legacy of an actor once adored by millions as “America’s Dad” for his role as lovable father and obstetrician Cliff Huxtable on hit 1984-92 television series “The Cosby Show.”
The pioneering black entertainer’s first trial ended in a hung jury in June last year, with a sequestered panel hopelessly deadlocked after six days of testimony and 52 hours of deliberations.
But before that, the case was initially settled by a civil suit in 2006, in which prosecutor Kevin Steele revealed the actor paid Constand $3.38 million as part of a previously undisclosed settlement.
In long, at times rambling remarks kicking off perhaps the most high-profile case of his career, Steele rehashed the details of the “he-said, she-said” case, saying that it was about broken trust.
He quoted liberally from Cosby’s own deposition, given in 2005, in which the actor said he gave Constand an over-the-counter antihistamine to relieve stress and that they had consensual relations.
In that same deposition, Cosby admitted obtaining sedatives with the aim of having sex.
Steele sought to neuter any attempt by the defense to portray Constand as a scheming money-grabber by revealing the sum paid and saying his office had approached her — not the other way — once new evidence came to light.
– Topless actress protests –
“We’re very confident that you will convict the defendant on three counts of aggravated, indecent assault for what he did to Andrea Constand on that night in January 2004,” Steele told jurors.
“She was incapable of consenting to anything,” he added.
The retrial got off to a headline-grabbing start when a topless protester jumped over the barrier and ran toward the comedian, before being tussled into the bushes by security and taken into custody.
“Women’s lives matter,” yelled Nicolle Rochelle, 39, with “Cosby rapist” and the names of his accusers written on her torso as the comedian was walking into the court house in Norristown, a Philadelphia suburb. She was charged with disorderly conduct.
Rochelle is an actress who appeared on several episodes of “The Cosby Show” in the early 1990s. She told reporters that the star had never mistreated her.
In recent years, some 60 women have accused the Emmy-winning Cosby, 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 the three counts against Constand, who now lives in Canada, are the only criminal charges to stick against Cosby.
His retrial is the most high-profile criminal case since the start of the #MeToo era, the US cultural watershed that has ruined the careers of a string of powerful men in Hollywood, politics and the media.
– Defense opening due Tuesday –
Experts say the movement may make jurors more inclined to believe victims.
Opening statements were delayed for hours after the defense team moved to strike one juror, who was allegedly overheard saying: “I just think he’s guilty, so we can all be done and get out of here.”
Judge Steven O’Neill eventually reconvened and swore in the panel, without dismissing the juror in question.
Crucial to the prosecution is O’Neill’s agreement to let five other Cosby accusers testify, compared to just one the last time, as attorneys mount a portrait of Cosby as a serial predator.
Los Angeles celebrity lawyer Tom Mesereau, whose distinctive mane of thick white hair makes him immediately recognizable and who is known for getting Michael Jackson acquitted of child molestation, will deliver his opening statements Tuesday.
Crucial to his case is O’Neill’s decision to allow testimony from a former co-worker who alleges that Constand schemed against Cosby.
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 testify again the second time around.
Cosby, who was lauded as a hero by African Americans and revered by whites for smashing through racial barriers, is best known for “The Cosby Show” but won three acting Emmys for 1960s series “I Spy.”