Pittsburgh jury to weigh Bill Cosby’s fate

Bill Cosby waves to spectators gathered to watch his arrival to the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown for his preliminary hearing on sexual assault May 24, 2016.

NORRISTOWN >> Entertainer Bill Cosby and his lawyers may have gotten exactly what they wanted - the chance to select jurors from the Pittsburgh area for the actor’s upcoming trial on charges he allegedly sexually assaulted a woman at his Cheltenham mansion in 2004.

Late Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in an order signed by Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor, ruled “that a jury to try (Cosby) shall be impaneled from Allegheny County.” Pittsburgh is the county seat and the largest city in Allegheny County.”

The state’s highest court was responding to Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill’s Feb. 27 request that another county be selected to hear Cosby’s June 5 trial.

Lead defense lawyer Brian J. McMonagle could not be reached for comment on Tuesday about the state court’s decision but during pretrial hearings McMonagle strenuously argued to pick a jury from a population base similar to Allegheny.

During a Feb. 27 pretrial hearing, McMonagle and co-defense lawyer Angela C. Agrusa argued for moving Cosby’s trial to another county, claiming that closer to home prospective jurors have been subjected to pervasive negative media coverage that “vilified an American icon” making it impossible to select a fair jury in Montgomery County. McMonagle described the media coverage as “a smear campaign across the globe.”

“Larger media markets generally contain more diverse and opposing viewpoints, and the prejudicial impact of the blatantly one-sided media coverage of this case might be dampened by the reduced media saturation in those larger markets, with populations in excess of 1.2 million people, for example,” McMonagle and Agrusa wrote in court documents seeking to move Cosby’s trial to another county – a change of venue - or to select a jury from another county – a change of venire.

McMonagle appeared to favor a county such as Philadelphia or Allegheny for the selection process.

“The larger the population base the more likely we can find unaffected voters,” McMonagle argued to the judge last month.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2010 population of Allegheny County was 1,223,348. The population estimate in July 2015 was 1,230,459, according to the Census Bureau.

Montgomery County’s population was 799,874 in 2010 and the population estimate in July 2015, according to the Census Bureau, was 819,264.

According to 2010 Census Bureau statistics, 81.5 percent of Allegheny County’s population was white, while 13.2 percent was black or African American. In comparison, in 2010, 81.1 percent of Montgomery County’s population was white, while 8.7 percent was black or African American.

While agreeing to select a jury from another county, District Attorney Kevin R. Steele opposed what he viewed as Cosby’s attempt to obtain a specific venire of his choice.

“The defendant’s request for a venire from a county with a population ‘in excess of 1.2 million people’ is nothing but a poorly concealed attempt to shop for what he seemingly views is a more favorable jury pool,” Steele wrote in court papers, adding only two counties, Allegheny and Philadelphia, would satisfy “his curiously specific demand.” “Because of his complaints about Philadelphia area media attention, he is obviously and specifically requesting a Pittsburgh venire.”

Steele, who is being assisted at trial by co-prosecutors M. Stewart Ryan and Kristen Feden, issued no statement Tuesday about the state court’s decision to select the Pittsburgh area for Cosby’s jury pool.

But during a pretrial hearing last month, Ryan, while conceding the media coverage was extensive in Montgomery County where Cosby lived, opposed Cosby’s request that the judge recommend Philadelphia or Allegheny counties for the jury pool. Ryan argued Cosby is not entitled to a specific venire that he perceives as more favorable.

“It’s not just short on the law, but short on logic,” Ryan said about McMonagle’s suggestion unbiased jurors couldn’t be selected from counties with smaller populations.

After the Feb. 27 hearing, O’Neill ruled that jurors from another Pennsylvania county would be selected and then brought back to Montgomery County for Cosby’s trial. Those jurors will be sequestered, the judge said, which will be at the county’s expense for the duration of the trial.

While O’Neill approved a change of venire he denied the more drastic request by Cosby’s lawyers for a change of venue.

Under state law, once a change of venire is granted by a county judge, it is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that has the sole discretion to designate the county from which a jury is selected.

William Henry Cosby Jr., 79, as his name appears on charging documents, faces three counts of aggravated indecent assault in connection with allegations he had inappropriate sexual contact with Andrea Constand, a former Temple University athletic department employee, at his Cheltenham home after plying her with blue pills and wine sometime between mid-January and mid-February 2004.

O’Neill has not set a specific date for jury selection to begin. But when it does commence, Cosby and his security entourage, county prosecutors, defense lawyers, O’Neill and likely a contingent of the judge’s staff will travel to Pittsburgh to select a panel of 12 jurors and several alternate jurors.

The charges were lodged against Cosby on Dec. 30, 2015, before the 12-year statute of limitations to file charges expired.

The newspaper does not normally identify victims of sex crimes without their consent but is using Constand’s name because she has identified herself publicly.

Cosby currently remains free on 10 percent of $1 million bail. If convicted of the charges at trial, the former sitcom star faces a possible maximum sentence of 15 to 30 years in prison.

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