Bill Cosby's return to court marked by hostility, accusations, disputes over evidence

It took less than 10 minutes Monday for a pivotal hearing in Bill Cosby’s sexual assault case to descend into acrimony, with lawyers on both sides lobbing accusations of unethical behavior and demanding drastic action that would put the April 2 trial date in doubt.

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Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele sought from the outset to have the 80-year-old entertainer’s newly constituted defense team – led by former Michael Jackson lawyer Tom Mesereau — thrown off the case. He alleged that the new attorneys had lied to the court, and described some of their pretrial strategies as “at best incompetent and otherwise unethical.”

Tom Mesereau, attorney for Bill Cosby, returns to court after a lunch break.

The defense shot back, claiming prosecutors had destroyed evidence and allowed their star witness, Andrea Constand, to lie under oath during Cosby’s first trial – ethical breaches so grievous, they said, that the only solution would be immediate dismissal of the case.

Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill remained unswayed by either side’s efforts, allowing the new defense lawyers to forge ahead and refusing their request to throw out the case.

Still, the bitter back-and-forth that kicked off Cosby’s first major court appearance in the #MeToo era  suggested his second trial could become even more contentious than the first, which ended in a mistrial in June.

Throughout the seven hours of arguments Monday – the first of a scheduled two days of hearings in Norristown – the lawyers danced through a series of disputes that will determine how, if at all, the evidence presented to jurors in Cosby’s retrial will differ from the earlier proceeding.

Prosecutors have renewed their bid to call several of Cosby’s other accusers as witnesses, while the defense presented a thick stack of travel and phone records that they say proves Constand’s alleged 2004 assault could not have occurred when she said it did.

O’Neill offered no indication on when and how quickly he intends to rule on how much of the new evidence he will allow to be put before a jury.

Yet despite the speed with which the tone turned hostile Monday, the judge began the hearing on a human note. He paused as he entered the courtroom to offer condolences to Cosby on the death of his 44-year-old daughter, Ensa, 10 days earlier.

“Mr. Cosby, the court does extend its sympathies,” he said.

Cosby, who sat silently through much of the rest of the hearing, quietly thanked the judge.

The hostility quickly began to simmer from there.

The argument Monday centered on prosecutors’ handling of Marguerite “Margo” Jackson, a Temple University employee and potential key witness for the defense.

She has claimed that she shared hotel rooms with Constand on several occasions while traveling with Temple’s women’s basketball team in the early 2000s.

On one such trip, Jackson has said in a sworn affidavit, Constand suggested that she could make up a story about a celebrity sexually assaulting her and use it to extort money.

Constand, then a manager for the team, first came forward in 2005 accusing Cosby of drugging and assaulting her at his Cheltenham residence a year prior.

During the first trial, Constand testified that she had never met Jackson, and O’Neill barred her testimony.

But defense lawyer Kathleen Bliss asked O’Neill to reconsider that ruling Monday. She accused prosecutors of allowing Constand to lie about her past relationship with Jackson and said they had destroyed notes of an interview they conducted with the woman in the run-up to the trial.

“This isn’t some flake that was just pulled off of a street corner,” Bliss said. “This woman has obvious credibility … These prosecutors, knowing that Margo Jackson made this statement, allowed Ms. Constand to deny knowing her, when that was clearly false.”

Steele scoffed at the defense’s claim. He insisted that no notes were taken during his office’s interview with Jackson and said prosecutors had any number of reasons to doubt her testimony – chiefly, that Cosby has admitted to having a past sexual liaison with Constand.

“For them to make these allegations is reckless and false,” he said.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Tuesday as O’Neill considers whether to allow additional accusers to testify at the retrial. Prosecutors have put forth a list of 19 women, including model Janice Dickinson, whom they would like to call to the stand – six more than they sought in the first trial and 18 more than O’Neill allowed at the time.

All have maintained that they, too, were drugged and assaulted by Cosby in incidents strikingly similar to that described by Constand, Assistant District Attorney Adrienne D. Jappe said.

If the first trial proved anything, she told O’Neill, it is that their testimony is needed to defend against the defense’s “inevitable attacks” on Constand’s credibility.

“The truly unique nature of [Cosby’s] sadistic sexual script is manifest in the similarities between the acts he enacted with Ms. Constand and the 19 other women,” she said.