In advance of Sept. 24 sentencing, Cosby attorney asks judge to recuse himself

Bill Cosby departs after his sexual assault trial, Friday, April 20, 2018, at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown.

Bill Cosby departs after his sexual assault trial, Friday, April 20, 2018, at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

A 20-year-old political rivalry forms the basis of the Bill Cosby legal team’s latest effort to remove presiding Judge Steven T. O’Neill from his criminal case, ahead of a Sept. 24 sentencing date.

This week, defense attorney Joseph P. Green filed a motion asking O’Neill to recuse himself and vacate an earlier ruling for failing to disclose that he “had long been embroiled in a personal conflict” with former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor.

The allegations are based on a March 28 story in Radar Online, an online tabloid owned by the same parent company as the National Enquirer, American Media Inc. That story alleged that Castor and O’Neill have a feud dating back to 1999 when they both sought the county Republican Party’s endorsement to run for district attorney. The document states that, during a meeting with party leadership, Castor placed O’Neill’s former girlfriend — who was wearing a “Castor 4 DA” button — in the front row to try to unsettle his opponent.

In April, Cosby was convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault at his Cheltenham home in 2004. Ahead of that trial, O’Neill ruled that Castor’s 2005 decision not to press charges against Cosby when these specific allegations of sexual assault were first reported — and his reasons for doing so — could not be heard. In 2016, Castor testified during a pre-trial hearing ahead of Cosby’s first criminal trial, which resulted in a hung jury in June 2017.

“I just think that’s way over the top,” said veteran defense attorney Tom Bergstrom of the motion to recuse. “It would have to be something a whole lot stronger than that, in my opinion, before a judge would consider recusing himself.”

In general, the bar for recusal is high, according to former prosecutor Dennis McAndrews.  “Courts presume that the trial judge is able to set aside any outside influence,” he said.

This is not the first time Cosby’s attorneys have sought to push out O’Neill. In March, former defense attorney Tom Mesereau filed a motioned for the judge to step away from the case because his wife’s work directing sexual trauma counseling and outreach at the University of Pennsylvania could bias him against Cosby. O’Neill declined.

In response to the latest motion to recuse, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele stated, “This defense filing is simply a desperate, eleventh-hour attempt by Cosby’s current set of attorneys to stop the sentencing of a convicted felon for his crimes.”

Steele vowed to file a response, and Green declined to comment further.

As Cosby’s sentencing nears, several outstanding legal matters remain unaddressed. O’Neill has yet to rule on a request by the Commonwealth to allow sentencing testimony from women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault, but whose allegations haven’t led to criminal charges. The judge must also hold a hearing on whether to designate Cosby a “sexually violent predator,” as recommended by the Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Assessment Board.

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