Amid media blitz, Cosby seeks open-minded jurors in Pittsburgh

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Bill Cosby receives his honorary degree for speaking at Carnegie Mellon University’s 2007 commencement at Gesling Field in Pittsburgh. The entertainer is now scheduled to return to Pittsburgh for jury selection in his sexual assault trial.

One of the last times Bill Cosby made a public appearance in Pittsburgh – a 2007 commencement speech at Carnegie Mellon University – he was welcomed with adoration.

Deep into a late-career shift from the celebrity known as “America’s Dad” to an aging icon better described as the nation’s irascible grandpa, he devilishly hectored graduates — addressing them as nerds and delivering his remarks while dressed in gray sweats, a ball cap, and Crocs.

But as he returns Monday for jury selection for his sexual-assault trial, the 79-year-old entertainer arrives in a city divided over how he should be received.

Summonses have gone out to nearly 3,000 potential jurors, with 125 expected to show up the first day at the Allegheny County Courthouse. The trial itself, scheduled to begin June 5 in Norristown, promises to be the most closely watched legal spectacle since O.J. Simpson’s 1995 prosecution and the first public vetting of allegations that mirror claims by dozens of women who have accused Cosby of sexual improprieties dating back decades.

And while supporters abound in the city of 300,000, an eleventh-hour push to rehabilitate his public image through nationally broadcast radio interviews and statements claiming racism at the heart of the case against him has rubbed some the wrong way.

“He should not be pimping the civil rights movement for his cause,” said Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project in Pittsburgh and the former president of the city’s NAACP branch.

State court administrators chose Pittsburgh as the venue for jury selection out of concern that overwhelming pretrial publicity may have tainted the jury pool in Montgomery County. Those selected for the panel will be sequestered in Norristown for what is expected to be a two-week trial. Judge Steven T. O’Neill has said jurors’ names will remain sealed. 

It seems unfathomable that anyone arriving with a jury summons Monday won’t have at least heard of Cosby’s legal travails, but his defense team hopes to find 12 men and women and six alternates who remain open-minded about the allegations from Andrea Constand, who says Cosby drugged and assaulted her at his Cheltenham mansion in 2004.

In seeking to move jury selection from Norristown, Cosby’s lawyers, Angela Agrusa and Brian McMonagle, sought a large urban center in Pennsylvania with more “diverse and opposing viewpoints,” leaving few options. They argued the Montgomery County jury pool had been permanently poisoned by extensive media coverage and by District Attorney Kevin R. Steele’s use of the Cosby case in the 2015 campaign that swept him into office.

In Pittsburgh they will find a region with a larger black population and wider economic diversity, according to U.S. Census data, and a city with which their client has always cultivated a special relationship.

“That bridge, that view, it’s like you’re entering the Emerald City,” Cosby said, recalling his first drive into the city from its airport in a 2010 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Look, Dorothy, it’s Pittsburgh!”

Though more closely associated with his hometown of Philadelphia, Cosby has been a frequent performer at the city’s landmark venue, Heinz Hall. He describes the Steelers as an “escape hatch” to the poor performances of his beloved Eagles.

And after his crowd-pleasing 2007 Carnegie Mellon commencement speech, he followed up the next year by buying the school its first live mascot – a Scottish Terrier.

As allegations of sexual misconduct snowballed in late 2014, the university was one of the few that did not rescind the honorary degree it had given him, nearly a decade earlier. The University of Pittsburgh, however, did.

In recent weeks, the entertainer’s team has sought to recapture the public affection their client enjoyed at events like that 2007 commencement speech at Carnegie Mellon’s Gesling Stadium a decade ago.

He spoke wistfully of his time on the stage in an interview with Sirius XM radio host Michael Smerconish on Tuesday. “I want to get back to the laughter and the enjoyment of things that I’ve written and the things that I perform on stage,” Cosby said.

That interview came at the peak of an orchestrated media blitz that started last month after more than two years of silence from Cosby and his family.

Radio spots featuring two of his daughters, Ensa and Erinn, were also broadcast in recent days on stations across the country as interviews featuring Cosby’s own words rolled out to black-owned newspapers, including the weekly New Pittsburgh Courier.

Each sought to humanize Cosby, with recollections from his rough upbringing in North Philadelphia while portraying him as a more recent victim of the media, his accusers, and a prosecution borne out of racism.

“My father is being punished by a society that still believes black men rape white women but passes off as ‘boys will be boys’ when white men are accused,” Cosby’s daughter Ensa said in a recorded statement aired on the nationally syndicated radio program “The Breakfast Club” last week.  “My father has been publicly lynched in the media.”

Cosby’s spokesman, Andrew Wyatt, downplayed any suggestion that the recent spate of publicity was aimed at influencing potential jurors before trial.

But Agrusa, Cosby’s attorney, laid out a broader agenda in an extensive profile that ran in the Hollywood Reporter last month.

The goal, she said, was to “change the optics” in advance of the entertainer’s trial.

“I can’t identify one other case in which the public has so conclusively come to the verdict of guilty,” she said. “Our job as lawyers is we now have to convince not just the judge but also the public why the initial verdict is wrong.”

It is unclear how broadly Cosby’s recent attempts at public rehabilitation have penetrated the Pittsburgh area. Discussions with locals Thursday at Pittsburgh’s Market Square revealed a true split in thinking.

“I don’t think he did it,” said Theresa Faust, 51, of Wilkinsburg, who said she grew up watching Fat Albert cartoons and has kept up with the Cosby case through her local TV news. “I love Bill Cosby … I just don’t see him doing that.”

Of his accusers, she added: “People just want to be famous.”

Camille Kimmich, a 20-year-old student at Point Park University and an avid viewer of The Cosby Show in her youth, was more circumspect.

She expressed some heartache over the tarnishing of a childhood icon but said she is convinced of his guilt by the sheer number of accusers who have come forward.

“He’s a childhood memory,” she said. “It’s really sad.”

Cosby’s relationship with African American audiences has remained strained since his 2004 speech at an NAACP awards ceremony in which he railed against the black community’s use of slang, the prevalence of single-parent households, and what he described as its emphasis on frivolous hip-hop culture.

Stevens, the city’s former NAACP chair, said he felt insulted by Cosby’s theory that race has played a role in the allegations against him.

“If it was Robert Redford … I cannot believe that the coverage would have been much less,” he said. “He abused his image as a multi-millionaire icon. It had nothing to do with being black. It had something to do with being abusive of women.”

But Pittsburgh-based comedian Tony “T-Robe” Roberson wasn’t so ready to dismiss suspicions of racial animus.

“I’m a black male myself, and the way I look at race is black men are always behind the eight ball,” he said. “That’s not playing the race card – that’s just the way it is.”

Roberson stood up for Cosby in early 2015 when activists urged Heinz Hall to cancel a scheduled Cosby performance – a decision he said he still stands by today. (Ultimately, the promoters canceled the show.)

Roberson admitted he didn’t know all the details surrounding Cosby’s legal case, but expressed hope that the accusations against him aren’t true.

“It almost feels like someone’s after him or trying to tear his legacy apart,” he said. “So, could it have happened? Yes, everything’s possible. … I just know this: I do hope he gets acquitted. I do hope his legacy stands strong.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Elizabeth Behrman contributed to this article.