Volcanic day of closing arguments at Cosby's sex-assault retrial

A Pennsylvania jury of seven men and five women was due to begin deliberations on Wednesday to decide whether to convict comedian and actor Bill Cosby of sexual assault, attempting to reach a verdict where a previous jury was hopelessly deadlocked.
Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby

NORRISTOWN (Pennsylvania) • On Day 12 of his sex-assault retrial, deep into a prosecutor's heated closing argument, Bill Cosby was laughing.

Some in the jam-packed courtroom might have missed it, but his chuckles and his ear-to-ear smile caught the eye of Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden on the opposite side of the room.

And she exploded.

"He's laughing like it's funny," Ms Feden said on Tuesday in a booming voice, stalking towards the comic legend and extending a long, slender, accusatory forefinger. "But there's absolutely nothing funny about stripping a woman of her capacity to consent."

Cosby stared right back, unblinking, a smile etched on his face. He kept laughing - his demeanour belittling Ms Feden's argument that he had engaged in a decades-long pattern of drugging and sexual assault.

After court adjourned, Cosby's spokesman asserted that the entertainer takes the proceedings seriously and was merely smiling while talking with one of his attorneys.

He said Ms Feden was concerned she was not connecting with jurors and "fabricated a story that Mr Cosby was laughing in order to continue to assassinate his reputation and character".

The extraordinary confrontation - a stare-down between the 80-year-old pioneering African-American entertainer and a much younger African-American prosecutor - punctuated a volcanic day of closing arguments that sent the jury into deliberations with vastly contrasting portraits.

Both the prosecution and the defence want jurors to believe that someone got conned. Prosecutors portrayed Cosby as a sinister presence who "conned" his primary accuser, Ms Andrea Constand, as well as five other witnesses into trusting him before he drugged them.

Cosby, Ms Feden said, tricked the women into thinking he was the embodiment of the wholesome father figure he played on television.

"The perpetrator of that con is that man sitting right here," said Ms Feden, who crossed the well of the courtroom and stood over Cosby, jabbing her finger so close to his face that he shifted forwards in his chair.

Defence attorneys want jurors to believe that the "con artist" is Ms Constand, the former Temple University women's basketball official whom they have accused of lying about a consensual sexual encounter to extort a US$3.38 million settlement of a 2006 lawsuit from the wealthy comedian.

"She hit pay dirt," said Mr Thomas Mesereau, Cosby's lead attorney. Ms Constand, whose statements to police include multiple inconsistencies, is a "pathological liar", he said.

The retrial of Cosby, whose first trial ended last June with a hung jury, has played out against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement in which dozens of women have publicly made sexual assault accusations, toppling some of the biggest names in American entertainment, politics and media.

But defence lawyer Kathleen Bliss sought to disentangle the Cosby case from the cultural moment. In her scathing closing argument, she compared the cavalcade of sexual assault accusations against the comedian to "witch hunts, lynching and McCarthyism".

"Mob rule is not due process," said Ms Bliss, a former federal prosecutor who shared closing arguments duty with Mr Mesereau.

Her blistering remarks reached such a level of intensity that some in the audience gasped in astonishment. She called one of Cosby's accusers, Janice Dickinson, "a failed starlet" and "an aged-out model".

"It sounds as though she slept with every single man on the planet," she said. "Is Miss Dickinson really the moral beacon that the women's movement wants?"

She suggested that another accuser, Ms Heidi Thomas, was revelling in attention after years ago failing to become a comedy theatre star. "Ladies and gentlemen, she's living the dream now," she said.

Ms Dickinson and Ms Thomas were among five women who testified for the prosecution as "prior bad act witnesses" to bolster the charges that Cosby sexually assaulted Ms Constand. Ms Constand, who was 30 when she says she was sexually assaulted by Cosby, testified that the comedy legend gave her pills that left her "frozen" in 2004 at his estate in suburban Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

Cosby is charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault. Late in the day, prosecutor Stewart Ryan shared a tantalising piece of evidence: Ms Constand, who had a habit of making many late-night phone calls, made no calls for 13 hours spanning from the evening of Jan 6, 2004, until the next morning. The implication was that those were the hours she was left incapacitated by Cosby's pills.

At times, the closing arguments grew intensely personal.

Ms Feden accused Ms Bliss of "character assassination" because of the piercing cross-examination of women who took the stand to testify against Cosby.

"She's the exact reason why women and victims of men and sexual assault don't report these crimes," said Ms Feden.

Ms Bliss seemed conscious of the potential for jurors to look askance at her aggressive questioning of witnesses, telling jurors that "questioning an accuser is not shaming an accuser".

Cosby's wife of more than half-a-century, Camille, made her first appearance at the trial on Tuesday, entering the courtroom before the arrival of the jury with her salt-and-pepper hair trimmed close to the scalp, and wearing large oval sunglasses and an ankle-length coat with a rust-coloured scallop pattern.

With a fixed smile, she walked into the well of the courtroom and approached her husband at the defence table. They chuckled for a moment, exchanging a few words. As she was about to turn around, Cosby reached for her shoulder. He gave her a somewhat stilted peck on the lips.

She found her seat in the front row, a few steps behind the defence table. As defence attorneys pleaded with jurors to acquit her husband, Mrs Cosby watched intently with her sunglasses on all the while. The jury never saw her eyes.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2018, with the headline 'Volcanic day of closing arguments at Cosby's sex-assault retrial'. Print Edition | Subscribe