Bill Cosby's lawyers ask Montco judge to step aside before retrial

Bill Cosby’s defense team is seeking to remove the Montgomery County judge who presided over his last trial, arguing that his views on the case may have been unduly influenced by his wife’s work as an advocate for sexual assault victims.

In a motion filed Thursday, the lawyers said there was a “clear appearance of partiality” in Judge Steven T. O’Neill’s recent decisions and requested that he recuse himself before before Cosby’s April 2 retrial.

They pointed to the work of O’Neill’s wife, Deborah O’Neill, a psychotherapist who coordinates a sexual-trauma outreach program at the University of Pennsylvania, and highlighted a financial contribution she made last year to a group planning a rally next month in support of Andrea Constand and Cosby’s other accusers.

Neither O’Neill nor his wife returned calls for comment Thursday. But prosecutors quickly fired back, dismissing the effort as little more than an “eleventh-hour, last-ditch attempt to stall the wheels of justice and taint the jury pool.”

“After casting blame on everyone but himself — the prosecutors, the investigation, the media, the victim, the many women accusing him of sexual assault, a federal judge and his past attorneys — [Cosby] plays his last card by blaming the court,” Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele wrote in a response filed late Thursday with the court.

The defense filing – submitted just over a week before Cosby’s retrial is set to begin in Norristown — is only the latest request by 80-year-old entertainer’s attorneys that, if granted, would delay the proceedings. O’Neill denied a push last week from Cosby’s team to give them three more months to prepare for the trial.

Whether their latest bid will succeed remains uncertain, said Robert H. Davis, a Widener University law professor who specializes in legal ethics. State judicial conduct rules give wide latitude to judges to decide for themselves whether they can fairly oversee any given case.

“Typically, the conflicts of interest involving spouses relate to whether the spouse has a direct financial interest” to a party in the case, he said. “The question is going to be whether there is enough here to believe [his wife’s work] would have an overall inappropriate effect on the judge’s outlook.”

It will initially be up to O’Neill to decide whether or not he can continue to impartially preside over the case he has overseen since Cosby was charged in 2015. If he refuses to step aside, Cosby’s lawyers have already indicated that they will seek to put the case on hold while they appeal that decision to a higher court.

Thursday’s filing was not the first time Cosby’s backers have publicly questioned O’Neill’s impartiality or the influence his wife’s work may have over his views of the case, though his lawyers had never before raised the issue in court.

Cosby’s wife, Camille, blasted the judge last June as “overtly arrogant and collaborating with the district attorney” in a blistering statement read by a spokesman from the courthouse steps just minutes after her husband’s first trial ended with a hung jury.

Kia Soto — a celebrity gossip blogger and founder of the website TattleTailzz.com, who attended every day of the trial as a guest of Cosby — penned an op-ed in 2016 demanding O’Neill’s recusal based on many of the same arguments put forth Thursday by the defense.

In their filing, Cosby’s lawyers took particular issue with the donation that Deborah O’Neill made to V-Day UPenn, the student group planning to protest outside the Montgomery County Courthouse during the retrial.

“Dr. O’Neill – the spouse of the trial judge presiding over this case – has apparently donated marital assets to the very organization that will be protesting against Mr. Cosby at his upcoming retrial,” their court papers state.

The lawyers also argued that several of the judge’s recent decisions – including one to allow up to five additional accusers testify during the second trial, four more than he allowed during the first – show signs of bias.

Cosby has denied charges that he drugged and assaulted Constand, a former Temple University employee, with whom he had become friendly in 2004.