Echoes of O.J.: As Cosby Trial Begins, Some See Similar Convergence of Race, Celebrity, Power, and Gender

Entertainer Bill Cosby, shown during jury selection in Pittsburgh in May, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of sexual assault in a 2004 incident. (Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images)
Entertainer Bill Cosby, shown during jury selection in Pittsburgh in May, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of sexual assault in a 2004 incident. (Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images)

The moment came suddenly, surprisingly. After nearly a year of sitting silently in a courtroom — and more than two years after a parade of women accusing him of sexual assault had stepped forward — Bill Cosby spoke out in court about the criminal charges against him.

“The Drake,” he said of the hotel where he is alleged to have plied a woman with Champagne — then assaulted her after she passed out — “is in Chicago.”

The clarification, offered to correct a district attorney’s mistake during a pretrial hearing in December, rang out to surreal effect around the courtroom: What defendant helps a prosecutor identify the site of an alleged sexual assault?

One thing was clear: Cosby was not going to let others define his actions for him, even with an offhand misstatement of where an incident took place.

As Cosby’s sexual assault trial begins Monday in a suburban courtroom north of Philadelphia, the disgraced entertainer will try to seize the narrative, just as he did when he gave his first major interview about the case to Sirius XM host Michael Smerconish last month.

Cosby is charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault stemming from a 2004 encounter at his Cheltenham, Pa., mansion with Andrea Constand, a former Temple University basketball coach, in which he allegedly initiated sexual contact after giving her wine and a pill.

The outcome could determine whether the entertainer goes to prison for up to 10 years.

‘It feels like O.J. Simpson’

More than just a fall-from-grace tale, the felony trial will serve as a flash point for a host of charged topics — celebrity, criminality, race, gender and power, all intersecting in a way likely to evoke another, familiar courtroom drama.

“When you put someone who was once so highly esteemed together with all these issues, it doesn’t feel like most cases,” said David Rudovsky, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a defense attorney specializing in civil rights. “It feels like O.J. Simpson.”

As with that news extravaganza, this trial will address questions both sociological and legal: Is Cosby a successful entertainer victimized by money-hungry plaintiffs and a mob of outraged Twitter users, as he and his lawyers will seek to persuade? Or is he a lecherous symbol of male privilege, someone who for years leveraged his reputation as a beloved comedian and sitcom dad to assault women and cover his tracks?

There may be no titanic Johnnie Cochran-Marcia Clark face-off awaiting in the Norristown, Pa., courthouse presided over by Judge Steven T. O’Neill. But the attorney antagonists will be a study in contrasts.

On one side is Kevin Steele, the physically imposing Montgomery County district attorney, whose approach might be described as bureaucratic dryness. A longtime presence in the suburban courthouse, the prosecutor in pretrial hearings has managed repeatedly to turn the case’s most salacious details into staid legal language.

Opposite him, lead Cosby attorney Brian McMonagle cuts a different figure. A compact Philadelphia lawyer with a flair for theatrics, McMonagle has defended a church figure enmeshed in a sex scandal and a future NBA star. At earlier Cosby hearings, he often embraced a showman’s gestures; a witness-exclusion argument had him passionately invoking Robert Bolt’s conscience play “A Man for All Seasons.”

Both sides will focus on Constand, who, so far, during more than a year of legal hearings, has not appeared in the courtroom. In the coming days, Constand, who is white, will finally testify about the night Cosby invited her to his home and, she says, penetrated her with his fingers without her consent — testimony that could determine whether Cosby goes to jail.

“For the prosecution, the key is having Constand be rock solid,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and former attorney specializing in race and criminal justice. “And the defense is going to want the jury to look hard at why it took her a year to come forward.”

A focal point could in fact be not only the allegation details but sexual assault itself, a realm in which public understanding is evolving so quickly many Americans think about it differently than they did even 2 1/2 years ago, when the torrent of accusations against Cosby started. That the subject has recently been in the headlines with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and President Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape could further help prosecutors.

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SOURCE: Steven Zeitchik 
The Los Angeles Times