More than half of those summoned Monday as potential jurors for Bill Cosby’s second sexual assault trial said they had already made up their minds about the case.
And as lawyers began the slow process of winnowing that group to the panel that will ultimately decide the 80-year-old entertainer’s fate, it became clear that they may be facing an arduous task.
Defense concerns that it would be impossible to find anyone in Montgomery County who had not at least heard of the allegations against Cosby or the torrent of similar claims recently lodged against other entertainment industry icons were quickly borne out.
Of the 120 county residents who showed up at the Norristown courthouse Monday, only 10 said they had not heard of the accounts of the more than 60 women who have since 2014 accused Cosby of sexual improprieties dating back decades.
Just one said he was unfamiliar with the #MeToo movement, which has brought down the likes of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and TV personalities Matt Lauer and Bill O’Reilly.
By the end of the day, only one prospect – a young white man who professed to be ignorant of the case – had been chosen to be a juror.
“Fair and impartial – those are the two most important words of the day,” Judge Steven T. O’Neill stressed again and again as he interviewed candidates, asking whether they could check their opinions at the door.
Many indicated it would be a struggle.
“When I hear gossip from my friends, I realize you only know some of the story, and until I have more information, I try not to judge,” said a middle-aged white woman who was the first prospect of the day. Still, she said she could not guarantee O’Neill that what she had heard about the case wouldn’t weigh on her mind throughout the trial.
The questioning took place within view of about two dozen reporters from news outlets from around the globe, but O’Neill repeatedly assured the panelists he would take every precaution to protect their identities. Throughout the day, he referred to prospective jurors only by assigned numbers; if chosen, their names will be sealed during the trial.
“These are just regular people who have just received a jury summons,” the judge told the gathered reporters. “If they feel that one of the impediments to their service is the media, I just implore you … to balance your rights for access and their rights for privacy.”
One woman quickly and confidently insisted that she could keep an open mind despite being a sexual assault victim herself. The defense, led by California attorney Tom Mesereau, struck her from consideration immediately, using one of seven chances they will have to remove a potential juror without offering an explanation.
All the while, Cosby – a trench coat draped over his lap, his cane clutched in his hands – betrayed no reaction as a roomful of people professed how difficult it would be to give him a fair hearing.
By the end of the day, the lawyers had weeded out 91 other prospective panelists, leaving 28 to return for further questioning.
If the court cannot find the 12 jurors and six alternates it needs from that group, another panel of 120 will be waiting, summoned to appear at the courthouse Tuesday.
During preparations for Cosby’s first trial, which ended in a mistrial in June, the jury was selected from a pool from around Pittsburgh, due to defense concerns about pervasive media coverage in the southeastern part of the state.
This time, with a new legal team in place, Cosby decided to take his chances with a Montgomery County pool – although more potential jurors reported Monday that they were familiar with the claims against Cosby than the first batch last year from Allegheny County.
It remains unclear how long it will take to pick the jurors, who will be sequestered during what is expected to be a monthlong trial.
O’Neill has scheduled opening arguments for Monday, and the case is expected to differ significantly from the first trial.
Cosby’s defense team has signaled it intends to be much more aggressive about painting Cosby accuser Andrea Constand as a money-grubber who fabricated her claims of assault to extort money from a rich and powerful man.
Prosecutors, too, believe they have bolstered their case against Cosby with testimony expected from five additional accusers – all of whom allege that they, like Constand, were drugged and assaulted by the entertainer in incidents dating back decades.
Cosby is accused of attacking Constand, a former Temple University employee, while she visited his home in Cheltenham in 2004.