PITTSBURGH • Sorting through a jury pool already exposed to the blaze of publicity over allegations against comedian Bill Cosby, lawyers and a judge on Monday selected the first five jurors, all of them white, who will decide whether he committed sexual assault.
The challenge of finding an impartial panel was on full display as jury selection began in the morning at the Allegheny County Courthouse here. When Judge Steven O'Neill asked the first 100 potential jurors if they had "heard, read or seen anything" about the case, more than 80 of them raised the numbered cards used to identify them.
One-third of the 100 said they had already formed an opinion about Cosby's guilt or innocence and 67 said it would impose a personal hardship on them to serve on the panel, sequestered, for a trial expected to last at least two weeks next month.
In the afternoon, the judge and lawyers on both sides called 21 of the potential jurors for closer questioning, one by one, about how aware they were of the case and whether they could remain open- minded.
Juror No. 8, a white middle-age man, said he could be a fair juror even though a family member had once suffered a sexual assault.
"Acceptable," said a Cosby lawyer, Mr Brian McMonagle, and prosecutors agreed.
The five jurors selected - three men and two women - all said they had not formed opinions about the case. As the pool is whittled down to 12 jurors, each side can use up to seven peremptory challenges to eliminate potential jurors without offering a reason; in selecting six alternates, each side will get three more challenges.
The defence team struck four potential jurors on Monday and the prosecution struck two, including an older black woman.
Cosby, 79, arrived at the courthouse before 8am, wearing a tan jacket, holding a cane and walking slowly with the help of an aide. He declined to answer reporters' questions.
In the courtroom, sometimes drinking from a bottle of water, he showed keen interest in the jury selection, whispering with his lawyers, leaning forward to hear and smiling at some of the discussion between the judge and candidates.
Growing impatient that he could not hear potential jurors' answers, he said loudly: "I am having a problem hearing."
And at one point, he remonstrated with his lawyers when they were discussing the acceptability of a middle-age white woman. "Strike," said Mr McMonagle.
The trial comes nearly 17 months after Cosby was charged with aggravated indecent assault and more than 13 years after the night Ms Andrea Constand says he drugged and sexually assaulted her.
In recent years, dozens of women have accused him of sexual assault, drawing intense, worldwide attention. But the criminal case rests on what happened in a single encounter with Ms Constand in 2004, at his home in suburban Philadelphia.
The jury pool is being drawn here because of concerns raised by Cosby's defence team that it would be hard to find open-minded jurors in Montgomery County, near Philadelphia, where he has a home and where the trial is scheduled to start on June 5 in Norristown.
His lawyers had requested a larger and more diverse jury pool drawn from Philadelphia or the Pittsburgh area.
"From Cosby's perspective, the chance to get a Pittsburgh jury rather than a Montgomery County jury would have been appealing," said Ms Anne Poulin, a professor emeritus of law at Villanova University, who is unconnected to the case.
"The county's population is not that diverse and, by reputation, tends to be conservative and perhaps more conviction-prone. By contrast, Pittsburgh offers a more diverse jury pool in terms of race, certainly, and quite likely in terms of social class and political leanings."
In the wood-panelled courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse, Judge O'Neill stressed the importance of the task before the pool of jurors and the need to avoid outside views of the case.
"We can't invite others into this courtroom," he said.
Cosby sat largely unnoticed through pre-trial hearings, but recently gave his first public interview in two years, as his lawyers said they were seeking to change the public's perception of him - the "optics" - as the trial nears.
Representatives from about 20 news media outlets were in the courtroom on the first day of a case that has attracted intense international interest.
Judge O'Neill, of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, is travelling to Allegheny County to supervise the jury selection.