The retrial of Bill Cosby, whose first trial ended with a hung jury, has played out against the backdrop of the Me Too movement in which dozens of women have publicly made sexual-assault accusations, toppling some of the biggest names in American entertainment, politics and media.
NORRISTOWN, Pa. — On Day 12 of his sex-assault trial, 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!” Feden said Tuesday in a booming voice, stalking toward 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.”
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Cosby stared right back, unblinking, a smile etched on his face. He kept laughing – his demeanor belittling Feden’s argument that he’d 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 Feden was concerned she wasn’t 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 defense want jurors to believe that someone got conned.
Prosecutors portrayed Cosby as a sinister presence who “conned” Cosby’s primary accuser, Andrea Constand – as well as five other witnesses – into trusting him before he drugged them. Cosby, 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 Feden, who crossed the well of the courtroom and stood over Cosby, jabbing her finger so close to his face that he shifted forward in his chair.
Defense attorneys want jurors to believe that the “con artist” is Constand, the former Temple University women’s basketball official who they’ve accused of lying about a consensual sexual encounter to extort a $3,380,000 settlement of a 2006 lawsuit from the wealthy comedian.
“She hit pay dirt,” said Thomas Mesereau, Cosby’s lead attorney. Constand, whose statements to police include multiple inconsistencies, is a “pathological liar,” Mesereau said.
The retrial of Cosby, whose first trial ended last June with a hung jury, has played out against the backdrop of the Me Too 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 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 Bliss, a former federal prosecutor who shared closing arguments duty with Mesereau. She later added that “as men and women, we reject gossip, speculation and false promises.”
The blistering remarks by Bliss reached such a level of intensity that some in the audience gasped in astonishment. Bliss, her voice thick with disgust, 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,” Bliss said. “Is Miss Dickinson really the moral beacon that the women’s movement wants?”
Bliss suggested that another accuser, Heidi Thomas, was reveling in attention after years ago failing to become a comedy theater star.
“Ladies and gentlemen, she’s living the dream now,” said Bliss, a former federal prosecutor with an athletic frame and a hint of a Southern twang.
Dickinson and Thomas were among five women who testified for the prosecution as “prior bad act witnesses” to bolster the charges that Cosby sexually assaulted Constand. 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 tantalizing piece of evidence: 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 Constand was left incapacitated by Cosby’s pills.
At times, the closing arguments grew intensely personal. Feden accused 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 Feden, noting how the witnesses had their life histories laid bare during cross examinations.
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.”
Bliss’s co-counsel, Mesereau told jurors that Constand “dead-bang lied.” The case, Mesereau said, was based on “shallow nonsense. Because that’s what our country is full of at the moment.” The evidence, Mesereau said, was “flimsy, silly and ridiculous.”
Both of Cosby’s attorneys emphasized the testimony of Marguerite Jackson, a Temple University academic adviser who told jurors that Constand confided to her about how she could falsely accuse a celebrity of sexual assault and extort enough money to quit her job and go back to school.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this case was over with Miss Jackson’s testimony,” Bliss said.
During cross-examination, prosecutor Stewart Ryan suggested that Jackson’s written affidavit about the allegations might have been massaged by Bliss and another Cosby defense attorney, Becky James. Mindful of that line of attack on the credibility of her star witness, Bliss injected gender Tuesday into her remarks about the assertion.
“They tried to suggest the women got together and tried to manufacture a statement,” Bliss said with a disapproving tone in her voice.
Cosby’s wife of more than half-a-century, Camille, made her first appearance at the trial 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-colored scallop pattern. With a fixed smile, she walked into the well of the courtroom, and approached her husband at the defense 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 defense table. As defense attorneys pleaded with jurors to acquit her husband, Camille Cosby watched intently with her sunglasses on all the while. The jury never saw her eyes.