One thing is expected to be different when Bill Cosby is retried in November on sexual-assault charges: His lead defense lawyer, Brian McMonagle, won’t be in court.
According to sources close to McMonagle, he plans to file a motion to withdraw as counsel as early as next week after the entertainer finalizes his plan to replace the well-respected Philadelphia litigator.
Reached by phone Friday, McMonagle declined to comment for this story, but those close to him say among the issues that agitated him during the two-week trial was how Cosby’s public relations team — in particular, Cosby spokesman Andrew Wyatt — hijacked spotlight after hearings to peddle theories and opinions not supported by McMonagle. Often, the comments were not underpinned by fact at all.
When Montgomery County Judge Steven O’Neill declared a mistrial following the jury’s 52 hours of inconclusive deliberations, Wyatt in front of rolling cameras introduced a spokeswoman, Ebonee Benson, who read a statement on behalf of the comedian’s wife, Camille Cosby.
In it, audiences heard Camille Cosby words that prosecutors were “heinously and exploitatively ambitious.” She referred to O’Neill as “overtly arrogant,” saying the judge was “collaborating with the district attorney.” And the media covering the trial? They were “blatantly vicious,” according to the Cosby statement set up by Wyatt.
In the mistrial’s aftermath, Wyatt and Benson appeared on the television show “Good Day Alabama” to announce that Cosby was planning town halls around the country to educate young people how to avoid false accusations of sexual assault. The appearance quickly cascaded across national media. Shortly after, Cosby took to Twitter to call the announcement “propaganda” and “false.”
To McMonagle, these distractions have been a nightmare, said Philadelphia defense lawyer Bill Brennan.
“It just seems like the inmates are running the asylum,” Brennan said. “There has to be one quarterback, one captain, and that should be the lead defense lawyer, and in this case it was Brian McMonagle.”
Dennis McAndrews, a Philadelphia area defense lawyer and former prosecutor, said it is generally a bad professional approach to “try a case in the media,” or provide on-the-record statements to journalists while a trial is underway. So, feeling muzzled in the face of noise stirred by Cosby’s publicists placed McMonagle in an unenviable position.
It presents ethical issues in trying to stay in the judge’s good graces, McAndrews said. In fact, at one point, O’Neill in open court admonished Wyatt for statement he made to reporters insinuating that a mistrial was afoot before the judge had actually declared one.
“It’s a disaster,” McAndrews said. “It’s a disaster to deal with on so many levels. Dealing with the client. Dealing with the court. Dealing with the message you want to get out publicly. It’s almost unimaginable to me.”
Wyatt and another Cosby lawyer, Angela Agrusa, did not return requests for comment.
Praise for McMonagle
Many Philadelphia-area court watchers said nobody is better suited to take the lead in a criminal trial this prominent and sensitive.
McMonagle, 58, a career trial lawyer and former homicide prosecutor, is no stranger to publicity-saturated court cases. He has represented mobsters, politicians, rap artists and star athletes.
During the Cosby trial, he was a charismatic performer, blending plainspoken appeals to pathos, long-winded personal anecdotes and emotional outbursts in his pursuit of inserting doubt into the minds of jurors over Cosby’s guilt.
“Mr. McMonagle is the single reason that the jury hung,” Brennan said.
McAndrews, who sat in the courtroom during the trial, agreed, saying McMonagle was “exceptionally well-prepared. He understood the main thing about the case and focused on that main thing. He was a very effective cross-examiner, and presented the evidence that helped, not hurt, the case.”
Defense lawyer Trevan Borum added, “there is no doubt that Brian McMonagle is the best criminal defense attorney in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Superlatives aside, McMonagle, who spent a year and a half preparing for the first trial, will not be bringing his well-regarded legal expertise to the defense of Cosby when prosecutors and Cosby re-enter the Montgomery County Courthouse four months from now.
To Brennan, the absence of McMonagle may just give prosecutors an edge.
“If anyone over there has a lick of sense, they will call Mr. McMonagle, do what they have to do to satisfy him and let him run the show,” Brennan said of Cosby’s team of publicists and other strategists.
“This is a courtroom,” he said. “This is not a comedy stage. This is not theater in the round. This is a criminal courtroom, and not being in the good hands of Brian J. McMonagle will hurt them.”