Cosby sexual assault US retrial gets underway

Comedian Bill Cosby arrives for the first day of his second trial for sexual assault at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania -- the case has tarnished the legacy of an actor once adored by millions as "America's Dad"

Norristown (United States) (AFP) – Disgraced US megastar Bill Cosby paid $3.38 million to a former university employee who accuses him of sexual assault, his retrial heard Monday in a dramatic revelation in a lengthy prosecution opening statement.

The now 80-year-old Cosby could spend the rest of his life behind bars if convicted of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand at his Philadelphia home in 2004.

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.

The case forever tarnished the legacy of an actor once adored by millions as “America’s Dad” for his defining role as lovable father and obstetrician Cliff Huxtable on hit 1984-92 television series “The Cosby Show.”

On Monday, Montgomery District Attorney Kevin Steele revealed in public that the actor paid 44-year-old Constand $3.38 million as part of a previously undisclosed civil settlement to her claims in 2006.

In long, at times rambling remarks kicking off perhaps the most high-profile case of his career, Steele rehashed much of the “he-said, “she-said” case, quoting liberally from Cosby’s prior deposition.

Steele sought to neuter a potential attempt from the defense to portray Constand as a scheming money-grabber by saying his office had approached her — not the other way — once new evidence came to light.

“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.

As Cosby walked towards the Pennsylvania court on Monday, a topless protester jumped over the barrier and ran towards 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 Cosby accusers written on her naked torso. 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.

– Juror complication –

Yet the three counts of aggravated indecent assault in connection with 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.

Opening statements were delayed Monday 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 court after 2:00 pm (1800 GMT) in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, and the jury was sworn in, without the juror in question having been dismissed.

Observers expect a dramatically different trial.

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.

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.

– #MeToo fog –

O’Neill has handed a win to the defense in allowing testimony from a former co-worker who alleges that Constand schemed against Cosby.

Permeating the entire case is the #MeToo movement, which erupted in October and which experts say may make jurors more inclined to believe victims.

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 the 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.

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.”