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Sexual harassment and assault

Bill Cosby’s trial judge refuses to step aside over his wife’s work with assault victims

Judge Steven O’Neill said at a pretrial hearing that he was ‘not biased or prejudiced’ because his wife Deborah is an advocate for assault victims

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 12:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 5:39am

The judge in Bill Cosby’s sexual assault trial rejected demands on Thursday from the comedian’s defence lawyers that he step aside because his wife is a social worker and advocate for assault victims.

Judge Steven O’Neill said at a pretrial hearing that he was “not biased or prejudiced” by his wife’s work, adding that the assertion that he shares the same views as his wife or has let his rulings be influenced by her profession “is faulty, plain and simple.”

Cosby’s lawyers were in court on Thursday in Norristown, Pennsylvania, making a last-ditch effort to postpone the comedian’s sexual assault retrial after losing their bid to overturn O’Neill’s ruling allowing up to five additional accusers to testify.

Jury selection is expected to begin on Monday, but Cosby’s lawyers could appeal that decision to the state Supreme Court.

Cosby, 80, faces charges that he drugged and molested former Temple University athletics administrator Andrea Constand at his home in 2004.

As Cosby’s lawyers are battling with O’Neill, who also oversaw his first trial, they also are counting on him to make critical rulings to bolster their defence that Constand is a liar who is only seeking money.

‘I used to be a comedian’: Bill Cosby 

The judge’s wife, Deborah O’Neill, is a psychotherapist at the University of Pennsylvania and coordinates a team that cares and advocates for student sexual assault victims. 

Cosby’s lawyers emphasised their concern over a US$100 donation made in Deborah O’Neill’s name to an organisation that gave money to a group planning protests outside Cosby’s retrial.

O’Neill said that the donation was made 13 months ago by the university department where his wife works and that it wasn’t a personal donation using her own money or their joint assets.

“How are my wife’s independent views of an independent woman connected to me?” O’Neill said. “She’s an independent woman and has the right to be involved in anything that she believes in.”

The judge said on Thursday that Cosby’s former lawyers raised the prospect of having him step aside in December 2016, but never followed through. 

Bill Cosby heads to court in a bid to limit accusers from testifying

He said he could have rejected the recusal request simply because Cosby’s lawyers waited too long to ask, adding that they waited until getting several adverse rulings just before retrial to raise it as an issue.

O’Neill spoke glowingly about his wife and said it was difficult to have her accomplishments “trivialised” in a legal motion. He said Cosby’s lawyers had presented an antiquated view of marriage where spouses must agree on everything.

“What we do not share are unified views,” O’Neill said, adding that his wife’s views, “do not influence me one iota.”

The defence request for the judge to step down was just one of the issues being argued during the pretrial hearing Thursday.

Cosby’s lawyers want permission to call a witness who says Constand told her that she was not assaulted but could make up allegations to sue and get money, and they want jurors to hear how much Cosby paid her in a 2006 civil settlement.

Lawyer Becky James argued at a preliminary hearing on Thursday that Marguerite Jackson’s testimony shows Constand’s state of mind before she went to police with allegations Cosby drugged and molested her in 2004. 

Constand’s lawyer has said Jackson is “not telling the truth.” 

Jackson worked with Constand at Temple University and says Constand talked about wanting to set up a “high-profile person” after seeing a television news report about a celebrity accused of violating women. 

Prosecutors say Judge Steven O’Neill should block her testimony like he did in the first trial because it would be hearsay.

O’Neill also decided on Thursday that the jury, chosen from the suburban Philadelphia county of Montgomery, will be sequestered in a local hotel. 

The jury from the first trial was chosen from about 300 miles (482 kilometers) away in Allegheny County.