Pre-trial Cosby interview suggests road map of his defense

Challenged Books
Bill Cosby departs after a pretrial hearing in his sexual-assault case at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown on April 3.

Bill Cosby hadn’t spoken publicly for more than two years, and given the risk of anything he said being used against him in either the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas or the court of public opinion, I had little expectation as to what he might reveal to me. To my surprise, our 30-minute conversation this past week was quite illuminating.

A post-interview media analysis by SiriusXM detailed that coverage of the interview reached a national television audience of nearly 20 million viewers, and the interview also played on local news outlets in more than 100 cities across the country. There was no uniformity among the headlines.

Many outlets, such as the Inquirer and Washington Post, highlighted that Cosby revealed he would not testify on his own behalf. Several, including the Huffington Post, noted that he regarded the volume of accusers as “piling on.” Others, such as People magazine, reported that he said he “never” lost the support of his wife. All of that is true. But to me, the person who conducted the interview, they miss the bigger takeaway from the discussion. Considered in total, the half-hour conversation was a road map of Cosby’s defense.

I prepared for the interview as I would a deposition, and with the knowledge that merely speaking with him would earn me scorn. (It did.) My intention was to be fair but direct, courteous but not a lackey. And mostly, to let him speak. At my disposal were three audio cuts supplied by his public relations representatives: statements of support from daughters Erinn and Ensa, and a lengthy interview conducted with Cosby by Erinn using questions prepared by documentary filmmaker Michelle Major. Playing select portions of that sound and having him react generated a wide-ranging conversation.

We’ve all seen the film footage of Cosby slowly entering the courthouse to face charges of aggravated indecent assault. The man I spoke with, possessing an unmistakable hearty laugh, was not mentally infirm. While he regarded himself as “unsighted,” his 79-year-old mind was sharp. And though his answers were often meandering, he nevertheless made his points.

He dismissed my question as to whether he was seeking to influence jurors (“You can’t aim at jurors”) but maintained his eye on his goal (“Well, things were rescinded, and I’d like to get those things back”). He was partially accepting of daughter Ensa’s opinion that there is racism at play (“Could be, could be.  I can’t say anything, but there are certain things that I look at and I apply to the situation. There are so many tentacles, so many different — nefarious is a great word — and I just truly believe that some of it may very well be that”). And he said he’d been subjected to media bias (“I also feel that there are many filmed things, and writing as well, that people can take what you say and insert it and it will mean something altogether different”).

Cosby presented himself as a victim being ganged up on by his accusers (“I think that the numbers came because the numbers prior to the numbers didn’t work”), who not only intend to deny him his reputation, but are also willing to punish those still willing to pay to watch him perform (“But I will ask this question … if a man is then free to go where he wants to go, free within the law to do what he wants to do, and he offers himself in concert for people to buy tickets, why would people threaten the hall, threaten the people who booked the show, when in fact the people who are coming are those who are buying tickets?”).

He sees a legal system manipulated by lawyers that limits his ability to defend himself in front of a jury of his peers (“But I just don’t want to sit there and have to figure out what I believe is a truthful answer as to whether or not I’m opening a can of something that my lawyers are scrambling”). Still, he displayed no anger or bitterness in his tone. Ironically or deliberately, the man who faces the highest-profile sexual-assault trial in recent memory, invoked a quotation from a feminist icon, Gloria Steinem (“The truth shall set you free, but first it might piss you off”).

While Cosby did say he has no intention of taking the stand in his own defense (“No, I do not”), there is nothing binding in that announcement. He can change his mind, and it’s entirely possible that his purpose was to impact the amount of time prosecutors prepare to cross-examine him. It’s also possible that things said by him to me could be introduced at trial, though I’m hard-pressed to identify what part of the tape could come back to haunt him. Cosby was measured. He didn’t take the bait when I asked him whether his many accusers are all lying (“You know better” and “I won’t and I cannot answer that. It’s really not fair and you know that, because all I have to do is say something similar to that and the next thing I know … whoever is … saying ‘Defamation, defamation, defamation’ ”).

At the end of the interview, Cosby said “I just hope I’m not in trouble now, man,” which itself generated a headline from the New York Post. I thought his concern was justified given that he’d invoked race and revealed his trial posture. But within hours of the airing of the interview he tweeted me thanks for “integrity, ethics, and clarity,” so it was obvious he believed he’d made his points.

Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124. He hosts Smerconish at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN. Listen to the Cosby interview here: http://bit.ly/2pGyVro.