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Bill Cosby judge won't step aside as lawyers target accuser

Written by Michael Sisak/The Associated Press | Mar 29, 2018 11:59 AM
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FILE PHOTO: Bill Cosby arrives for his sexual assault trial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown on June 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(Norristown) -- The judge in Bill Cosby's retrial rejected demands Thursday from the comedian's defense lawyers to step aside during a hearing in which they made clear they plan to attack his accuser as a greedy liar who falsely accused the comedian of sexually assaulting her to collect a payoff.

Judge Steven O'Neill shot down what amounted to a last-ditch effort to postpone the trial by defense lawyers who lost their bid to overturn his ruling allowing up to five additional accusers to testify against Cosby.

Lawyers argued he should remove himself because his wife is a social worker and advocate for assault victims, pointing to a $100 donation made in her name to an organization that gave money to a group planning a protest outside of the retrial.

O'Neill said that was made 13 months ago by the department where his wife works at the University of Pennsylvania and that he's "not biased or prejudiced" by her work.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday as the 80-year-old Cosby faces charges that he drugged and molested former Temple University athletics administrator Andrea Constand at his home in 2004.

While they sparred with him in court Thursday, Cosby's lawyers are also counting on him to make critical rulings to bolster their defense that Constand is a money-grubbing liar.

They want O'Neill to let them call Marguerite Jackson's, a woman who says Constand spoke of framing a celebrity before she went to police with allegations that Cosby drugged and molested her in 2004. They also want to let jurors know how much Cosby paid her in a 2006 civil settlement.

"Those are the bookends: I have a motive and I have a payoff," lawyer Kathleen Bliss argued. "The jury should be allowed to view the full context of that."

Assistant District Attorney Kristen Fedden said that they doubt the discussion with Jackson happened and Constand's lawyer has said that Jackson is "not telling the truth."

O'Neill blocked Jackson from testifying at the first trial because he said her testimony would be hearsay. Prosecutors want him to do the same for the retrial.

Prosecutors say the theory that Constand wanted to set up Cosby is undermined by the comedian's testimony in a 2005 deposition that she only visited his home when invited and that he gave her pills without her asking for them.

Prosecutors also argued the settlement is irrelevant to the criminal case, but that if it is allowed in, jurors should also hear about negotiations that led to the settlement.

Assistant District Attorney Stewart Ryan contended that Cosby's negotiators initially asked that he be released from any criminal liability and tried to bar Constand from cooperating with law enforcement. He said that amounts to obstruction of justice.

"Those things are inconsistent with a person who believes he's innocent," Ryan said.

Thursday's hearing started with arguments over the judge's wife, Deborah O'Neill, a psychotherapist at who coordinates a team that cares and advocates for student sexual assault victims.

O'Neill said that the donation cited by Cosby's lawyers didn't involve her money or their joint assets.

"How are my wife's independent views of an independent woman connected to me?" O'Neill said. "She's an independent woman and has the right to be involved in anything that she believes in."

O'Neill said Thursday that Cosby's old lawyers raised the prospect of having him step aside in December 2016, but never followed through. He added that he could've rejected the recusal request simply because Cosby's lawyers waited too long to ask.

He said they were aware of Deborah O'Neill's work as far back as December 2016, but that they waited until getting several adverse rulings just before retrial to raise it as an issue.

O'Neill spoke glowingly about his wife and said it was difficult to have her accomplishments "trivialized" in a legal motion. He said Cosby's lawyers had presented an antiquated view of marriage where spouses must agree on everything.

Cosby's lawyers could still appeal O'Neill's decision to allow the other accusers to testify to the state's Supreme Court.

The pretrial hearing will continue Friday, including for arguments over whether jurors can hear about a 2005 phone call in which Constand says she told her mother about the alleged assault for the first time.

O'Neill agreed Thursday that the trial won't start until at least April 9 and that the jury chosen from suburban Montgomery County will be sequestered in a local hotel.

The AP does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission, which Constand has done.

An earlier story appears below. 

(Norristown) -- The judge in Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial rejected demands today from the comedian's defense lawyers that he step aside because his wife is a social worker and advocate for assault victims.

Judge Steven O'Neill said at a pretrial hearing in Montgomery County that he's "not biased or prejudiced" by his wife's work and that the assertion that he shares the same views as his wife or has let his rulings be influenced by her profession "is faulty, plain and simple."

Cosby's lawyers are in court today making a last-ditch effort to postpone the comedian's sexual assault retrial after losing their bid to overturn O'Neill's ruling allowing up to five additional accusers to testify.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday, but Cosby's lawyers could appeal that decision to the state Supreme Court.

The 80-year-old Cosby faces charges that he drugged and molested former Temple University athletics administrator Andrea Constand at his home in 2004.

As Cosby's lawyers are battling with O'Neill, who also oversaw his first trial, they also are counting on him to make critical rulings to bolster their defense that Constand is a money-grubbing liar.

The judge's wife, Deborah O'Neill, is a psychotherapist at the University of Pennsylvania and coordinates a team that cares and advocates for student sexual assault victims. Cosby's lawyers emphasized their concern over a $100 donation made in Deborah O'Neill's name to an organization that gave money to a group planning protests outside Cosby's retrial.

O'Neill said the donation was made 13 months ago by the university department where his wife works and that it wasn't a personal donation using her own money or their joint assets.

"How are my wife's independent views of an independent woman connected to me?" O'Neill said. "She's an independent woman and has the right to be involved in anything that she believes in."

O'Neill said Thursday that Cosby's old lawyers raised the prospect of having him step aside in December 2016, but never followed through. He added that he could've rejected the recusal request simply because Cosby's lawyers waited too long to ask.

He said they were aware of Deborah O'Neill's work as far back as December 2016, but that they waited until getting several adverse rulings just before retrial to raise it as an issue.

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Photo by AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

FILE PHOTO: The Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown.

O'Neill spoke glowingly about his wife and said it was difficult to have her accomplishments "trivialized" in a legal motion. He said Cosby's lawyers had presented an antiquated view of marriage where spouses must agree on everything.

"What we do not share are unified views," O'Neill said, adding that his wife's views, "do not influence me one iota."

The defense request for the judge to step down was just one of the issues being argued during the pretrial hearing Thursday.

Cosby's lawyers want permission to call a witness who says Constand told her that she was not assaulted but could make up allegations to sue and get money, and they want jurors to hear how much Cosby paid her in a 2006 civil settlement.

Prosecutors say former District Attorney Bruce Castor's stated reasoning that he did not charge Cosby in 2005 because the case was weak and he wanted him to speak freely in a civil deposition is irrelevant to the case at hand.

They say Castor's unsuccessful campaign against current DA Kevin Steele in 2015 and his ongoing legal skirmish with Constand also are irrelevant.

Steele's predecessor, Risa Vetri Ferman, reopened the investigation in 2015 after The Associated Press fought to unseal parts of Cosby's deposition testimony -- including lurid passages about him giving drugs to women he wanted to have sex with. Cosby was charged shortly before the statute of limitations was set to expire.

Documents made public showed that prosecutors have chosen model Janice Dickinson as one of the women they plan to have testify. She says Cosby drugged and raped her in Lake Tahoe in 1982.

The AP does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission, which Constand and Dickinson have done.

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