Cosby trial opens with accuser setting the stage for Constand

Bill Cosby, center, walks into courtroom A inside the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa on June 5, 2017. Cosby is on trial for sexual assault. (David Maialetti/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Bill Cosby’s long-awaited trial opened Monday with a former talent agency assistant describing how the entertainer drugged and sexually assaulted her in a Los Angeles hotel room two decades ago, a tactic prosecutors contend foreshadowed the alleged 2004 attack that led to his arrest.

Kelly Johnson told jurors in Norristown that she felt powerless and afraid after Cosby gave her a pill during a 1996 lunch date that left her feeling woozy. The next thing she knew, Johnson said, she was on his bed with her dress undone around her waist. She woke up later at her home with no memory of how she got there, and was terrified to tell anyone.

“I had the utmost respect and admiration for him based on what millions of other Americans – especially other African Americans – thought of him from The Cosby Show,” she testified.

Johnson’s tearful testimony in a packed courtroom, and the tough cross-examination that followed from Cosby’s lawyers, heightened the drama on the first day of a trial expected to rival the spectacle of O.J. Simpson’s prosecution decades ago. Scores of media crews and satellite trucks crowded streets and sidewalks around the Montgomery County Courthouse as the 79-year-old Cosby arrived for a proceeding that could end with him facing a prison sentence.

The trial’s observers included at least a few of the dozens of women who have accused him of sexual misconduct in recent years. His central accuser, former Temple University employee Andrea Constand, was not in the courtroom. She will testify later. Cosby’s wife, Camille, also did not attend Monday’s proceedings.

Camera icon  David Miailetti / Staff Photographer
Therese Serignese, who claims Bill Cosby raped her when she was 19, walks up the steps to the courtroom inside the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa. on June 5, 2017.

Charged with aggravated indecent assault, Cosby walked into the courthouse arm-in-arm with Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played his daughter Rudy Huxtable on The Cosby Show – reminding onlookers of years when he was known as “America’s Dad” and beloved by fans around the world.

In their opening statements, prosecutors and Cosby’s lawyers urged jurors to look past his fame – both his days as Cliff Huxtable and his current reputation as a disgraced star.

“Some of you may see a brilliant comedian who made us smile,” defense lawyer Brian McMonagle told the panel, seven men and five women picked in Allegheny County last month and sequestered for the trial. “Some of you may see a fallen husband, whose infidelities have made him vulnerable to these accusations. …  [But] what I hope you’ll see is just a citizen, presumed innocent as he sits here.”

Prosecutor Kristen Feden, however, warned jurors not to be fooled by memories of the charming family man at the heart of Cosby’s most famous show.

“You’re going to see the defendant for exactly who he is,” she said. “This is a case about a man who used his power and fame and his previously practiced method of placing young, trusting women in an incapacitated state so that he could sexually pleasure himself.”

Still, his celebrity loomed large.

Johnson, the first witness, testified that she met Cosby because she worked in the 1990s for his agent, Tom Illius, at the William Morris Agency. She said she developed a friendship with Cosby because he was the most important client, and later hesitated to come forward after he sexually assaulted her in 1996 because of his star power.

“I was humiliated and embarrassed,” said Johnson. “I was very afraid, because I had a secret about the biggest celebrity in the world at that time. And it was just me. It was just me. And my word against his.”

Johnson, 55, of Atlanta, is the only one of Cosby’s more than 60 other accusers who Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill agreed to let prosecutors call to bolster the claim that his attack on Constand followed a pattern. Before the trial, Johnson had been identified in court papers only by a pseudonym, Kacey, but her lawyer, Gloria Allred, said she no longer wished to remain anonymous.

Her tearful account mirrored how Cosby’s alleged assault against Constand unfolded eight years later at his Cheltenham home.

Johnson told jurors Cosby offered her career advice and asked after her family. He invited her to his home and hotel. In 1996, she agreed to meet him for lunch at his bungalow at the Hotel Bel-Air, she said.

He greeted her wearing a bathrobe. Johnson testified that Cosby sensed she was tense and offered her a large white pill that he appeared to have had on him from the moment he opened the door. He wouldn’t tell her what it was.

“He just kept saying, ‘Would I give you anything to hurt you? Trust me, it will help you relax,’” she said.

She tried to hide the pill under her tongue, Johnson said, but when Cosby gave her wine and asked to see if she swallowed, she was forced to ingest the pill.

She excused herself to go to the bungalow bathroom, saw prescription bottles on the counter, and thought she could figure out what she had taken. But she said she started to feel disoriented.

“I was feeling frustrated with myself because for some reason I couldn’t read the prescription bottles and it was making me so upset,” she said. “I didn’t understand the sense of time or anything.”

The next thing Johnson remembered, she told jurors, was waking up on a bed, her dress bunched up. Cosby groaned, put lotion on her hand, and forced her to masturbate him, she said.

As she described it to the silenced courtroom, Johnson broke down in tears.

Through three hours on the stand, she avoided eye contact with the defendant, focusing instead on prosecutors and the jurors. Cosby, in turn, showed little reaction to her testimony.

After the assault, Johnson said, Cosby had called her boss and tried to get her fired.

“I heard him say: ‘She’s always away from her desk. She’s messing up her work. She’s ungrateful for all the things that have been done for her. She’s a problem. You need to get rid of the problem,’ ” she said.

Johnson said she left the job on medical leave before the agency could follow through on Cosby’s request.

But Cosby’s defense team suggested on cross-examination that the woman’s story did not add up.

Citing lawyers’ notes from Johnson’s deposition in a 1996 worker’s compensation claim, McMonagle said Johnson had once sworn the hotel room encounter with Cosby was in 1990. He also said she testified that she had returned to Cosby’s home in 1996 thinking that things would be different, but that the entertainer attempted to make a sexual advance on her while giving her acting lessons.

Johnson referred to both incidents while being questioned by prosecutors earlier on Monday, but in reverse order. And she had claimed both occurred within months of each other, not years apart.

Grilled by the defense lawyer about the inconsistencies, Johnson repeatedly said she simply did not remember testifying about a different version of events.

“I can just tell you that I was bawling in that deposition and I didn’t even really want to say,” she said.

Instead of complaining to the talent agency’s human resources department about Cosby, as she had testified, McMonagle said an internal memorandum indicated she had complained about her boss. And while she had testified that she could not remember driving home, McMonagle said her past statements included a description of going home.

Citing those statements, the defense lawyer also suggested that Johnson let Cosby give her money for her hair and her grandmother’s medical bills long after she claims to have been assaulted by him.

“Did anybody tell you to get selective amnesia about this case?” McMonagle asked.

“No sir,” she replied, crying.

As his lawyer shouted questions at the witness, Cosby grinned.

The trial resumes Tuesday, when prosecutors hope to call Johnson’s mother to the witness stand.

Keep up with every development in Bill Cosby’s case with our day-by-day recaps and explainer on everything you need to know about the case and its major players.