The panel that will decide Bill Cosby’s fate in his sex assault trial began to take shape Monday with the selection of five jurors, three white men and two white women.
The search for 12 jurors and six alternates got off to a brisk star, even though a third of the initial jury pool had an opinion about Cosby’s guilt or innocence and an equal number said they or someone close to them had been sexually assaulted. Lawyers on both sides are contemplating a person’s race, sex, age, occupation and interests as they weigh their likely sympathies, experts said.
“You’re looking for what people already believe,” said University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor David Harris. “People don’t take in new information and process it. They filter it into what they already know and think.”
The actor-comedian once known as America’s Dad for his portrayal of Dr. Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” is charged with drugging and molesting a Temple University women’s basketball team manager at his home near Philadelphia in 2004. He calls their encounter consensual.
Dozens of other women have made similar accusations against Cosby, and the judge is allowing only one of them to testify at the June 5 trial in suburban Philadelphia. The jury from Pittsburgh will be sequestered nearly 300 miles from home.
Cosby, 79, has said he thinks race “could be” a motivating factor in the accusations lodged against him.
The jurors’ names, ages and occupations were being kept private. The oldest person chosen for the panel was perhaps in his 70s and, like Cosby, uses a cane. The youngest was a young man with a hipster style. He and a middle-aged man selected said they or someone close to them had been sexually assaulted, but they insisted they could judge the case fairly. That’s sometimes harder than it seems, one law professor said.
“Can we trust them (to be fair)? That’s really the question,” said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor. “Sometimes it’s not so easy. It’s one thing to set aside intellectually what you know, but it’s another to set it aside emotionally.”
The case against Cosby has attracted worldwide publicity that the judge hopes to shield from jurors during the trial. More than 80 percent of Monday’s jury pool said they were familiar with the case, and two-thirds said it would be difficult to spend several weeks sequestered across the state. But not all of their hardship claims held up. Two people selected had initially voiced job concerns but later said they could serve.
“No one should make an effort to be on this jury, and no one should make an effort to not be on this jury,” Judge Steven T. O’Neill told the group.
Cosby arrived in court on the arm of an aide, using a cane and carrying a box of tissues, and frequently conferred with his three lawyers at the defense table.
Lead lawyer Brian McMonagle said Cosby was “looking forward” to getting the process started. However, Cosby has said he does not expect to testify.
The defense had used four strikes to keep someone off the jury by Monday afternoon, while the prosecution had used two. Each side can strike seven people from the jury and three alternates.
The trial will take place in Norristown in Montgomery County, where Cosby had invited Andrea Constand to his home in 2004. She said she went seeking career advice as she considered leaving her job managing the women’s basketball team at Temple University. She said Cosby gave her wine and pills that put her in a stupor before molesting her on his couch.
Constand was 30 and dating a woman at the time, while Cosby was 66 and long married to wife Camille. Cosby in sworn testimony has said he put his hand down Constand’s pants, but said she did not protest.
The Associated Press doesn’t typically identify people who say they are the victims of sexual assault unless they come forward, as Constand has done.
The first group of 100 potential jurors summoned Monday included 16 people of color. Forty-one of them will return Tuesday for further consideration before the judge, if necessary, calls in the next pool.
Cosby was arrested Dec. 30, 2015, days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired. He has pleaded not guilty and remains free on $1 million bail.
He told a talk show host last week that he hopes to beat back the charges and resume his career.
“I want people to understand my work as an artist and a performer,” he said. “I want to get back to the laughter and the enjoyment of things that I’ve written and things that I perform on stage.”