Cosby judge to screen Pittsburgh-area jurors for two-week trial

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The judge overseeing Bill Cosby’s sex assault trial intends to screen up to 125 potential jurors a day as jury selection begins in Pittsburgh next month in what is likely to be the most closely-watched celebrity trial the state has ever seen.

Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill on Monday outlined the strict protocols he intends to use to find the 12 men and women and six alternates from Allegheny County that will weigh the 79-year-old entertainer’s fate. 

Once the panel is chosen, he said, they will be sequestered and bused nearly 300 miles to Norristown for the duration of what is expected to be a two-week trial starting June 5. Their names will not be made public.

The judge previously had agreed to choose jurors from Allegheny after Cosby’s lawyers said pretrial publicity made it unlikely they could find a fair jury in Montgomery County. 

But during a pretrial hearing Monday in Norristown, O’Neill appeared reluctant to grant defense requests for a more extensive vetting process that would pull from a pool of nearly 2,000 potential jurors.

“This is an important case to everyone involved,” he said. “But it isn’t a different case to what courts try all the time.”

Citing the high-profile nature of the case, Cosby’s lawyers have asked for a weeks-long vetting process, beginning with mailing detailed questionnaires to thousands, seeking prospective jurors’ opinions on celebrity and sexual abuse in an effort to narrow the pool.

Such measures were necessary, defense lawyer Angela Agrusa said Monday, because the Cosby case has had “more publicity than any piece of litigation … we have probably ever seen in our lifetimes.”

“You cannot walk into a grocery store, convenience store or a mini-mart without seeing headlines – not just in the tabloids but in the mainstream news and print – calling him a predator and a rapist,” she said.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele argued against those unusual steps, saying they would only draw more attention to the spectacle surrounding the case.

Cosby, 79, is charged with aggravated indecent assault, accused of having drugged and molested Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee, at his Cheltenham residence in 2004.

O’Neill is also expected to also hear arguments Monday on what evidence prosecutors will be allowed to present to the jury at trial, including whether or not they can use portions of a 2005 deposition Cosby gave detailing sexual encounters with other women.

The defense has also sought to bar them from referencing jokes about Cosby’s use of aphrodisiacs throughout his half-century career in comedy.

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