NORRISTOWN, Pa. (CN) – Visibly emotional as he delivered his ruling, the judge overseeing Bill Cosby’s sexual-assault prosecution refused to step aside Thursday based on bias claims over his wife’s work.
My wife is “an independent woman,” Judge Steven O’Neill said, rejecting a motion that called out Deborah O’Neill’s position at the University of Pennsylvania as a source of potential bias in Cosby’s case.
With a doctorate in social work, Deborah O’Neill advocates at U-Penn for victims of sexual assault.
In discussing his respect for that work and his wife’s passion, Judge O’Neill paused to gather himself, saying she is “free to independently support” her own endeavors and views.
“She has no interest in the outcome of this case,” O’Neill added, going on to explain how no part of Pennsylvania law 2.11, Rule of Disqualification, applies to Cosby’s prosecution.
O’Neill emphasized that there are no economic interests at work, and that the defense provided “no real evidence” in support of its motion, which he also slammed as “untimely.”
“I have no personal bias or prejudice to the party or party’s counsel,” Judge O’Neill said.
The pretrial hearing at the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas came with days to go until Cosby’s retrial kicks off with jury selection on April 2.
During arguments earlier this morning, Judge O’Neill emphasized that he has been on the case since Cosby’s arrest in 2015.
“But there isn’t any actual bias that you claim in this case in the past 27 months,” Judge O’Neill said.
“Well, we think there could be,” Cosby’s new lead defense attorney Tom Mesereau replied calmly.
Having famously defended a roster of celebrities that includes Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, Robert Blake and Marion “Suge” Knight, Los Angeles-based Mesereau took over Cosby’s defense team from Philadelphia attorney Brian McMonagle after Cosby’s mistrial last year.
Cosby entered court this morning holding the arm of his publicist, Andrew Wyatt. Dressed in a navy blue suit, the 80-year-old Cosby listened as defense attorney Kathleen Bliss claimed that Judge O’Neill’s wife donated personally to an organization that routinely protests against Cosby: WAR, Women Against Rape.
Judge O’Neill fired back, noting that the donation was made via The University of Pennsylvania, not from his funds.
“My wife and I are separate individuals,” O’Neill said. “There is no evidence, that, this donation was made by marital assets,” he added.
“We mean no offense to you, your honor,” Bliss replied. “But the donation appears it was made by her name.”
Attorney Mesereau also told the court that he sees potential bias in Judge O’Neill’s refusal to let the defense introduce witness testimony from a former Temple University employee named Margo Jackson.
If allowed to testify, Jackson would tell the court that Cosby’s accuser, Andrea Constand, hatched a plan to fabricate sexual assault claims against Cosby so that she could collect a settlement.
It is undisputed that Constand met Cosby through her position at Temple, where Cosby was a trustee, in the early 2000s as operations manager for the women’s basketball team. Though Cosby says he had a consensual sexual relationship with Constand, who is a lesbian, Constand reported to police in 2005 that Cosby drugged and raped her at his Cheltenham home.
Montgomery County’s DA at the time believed Constand’s claims too weak to prosecute, but the case finally picked up steam in 2015 when dozens of women came forward with similar stories about the comedian, dating back to the 1970s. To date, Constand remains the only Cosby accuser whose claims are not too old to prosecute.
At Cosby’s first trial last year, which ended in a hung jury, Judge O’Neill refused to admit testimony from Jackson, whom Constand claims to have never met.
But Jackson, who worked for the Temple women’s basketball team as an academic adviser, claims that she and Constand shared a room together when the team went on a road trip.
In a sworn affidavit submitted by the defense, Jackson said she and Constand were watching a news segment about a prominent person accused of drugging and sexually assaulting women, and that Constand told her that she had experienced something similar but did not report it to police.
Jackson then pressed the issue, and Constand allegedly responded that she had not actually been assaulted but that “I could say it happened, file charges, and get money to go to school and open a business.”
At Thursday’s hearing, Assistant District Attorney Adrienne Jappe denied that Jackson’s testimony would shed light on Constand’s mindset when she went to police.
“This is not state of mind,” Jappe said, calling Jackson’s testimony “not relevant” and “speculative hearsay.”
Attorney Mesereau also claimed at Thursday’s hearing that the defense needs more time to prepare for the 19 witnesses the prosecution plans to call, but Judge O’Neill said the publication of the witness list months earlier gave the defense ample time to prepare.
The judge ended today’s hearing without ruling on another motion concerning what the jury should learn about the civil settlement Cosby and Constand reached in 2005.