The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bill Cosby trial commences with the monumental task of finding jurors who aren’t already biased

Bill Cosby's upcoming trial will rest on the testimony of Andrea Constand, who accuses the comedian of sexual assault in 2004. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Manuel Roig-Franzia/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt Rourke/The Washington Post)

PITTSBURGH–One third of the potential 100 jurors in the first round of jury selection for the Bill Cosby sexual-assault trial said Monday they’ve already formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence of the legendary comedian.

The large number of possible jurors whose opinions have already been shaped underscores the difficulty of selecting a panel to hear the case, which centers on allegations that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted a former Temple University women’s basketball team staffer in 2004. A smaller number of possible jurors — 14 out of 100 — said their opinions are so fixed that they couldn’t be changed.

Packed into a third-floor hearing room in a downtown Pittsburgh county courthouse that resembles a medieval castle, the jurors responded to questions lobbed at them by Judge Steven T. O’Neill, while Cosby sat at the head of the defense table, mostly staring impassively at the ceiling. But Cosby’s hands clenched ever so slightly and he closed his eyes when O’Neill asked about preconceived notions.

The intense media coverage of Cosby’s alleged sexual misdeeds was a recurrent theme in the questioning, harking to news reports about 60 women who have said Cosby raped, sexually assaulted or sexually harassed them in the past five decades. (He has denied all such claims.) Only about 14 potential jurors said they hadn’t heard anything about the allegations against Cosby.

Cosby’s defense team persuaded the judge select a jury from Pittsburgh, some 300 miles west of Montgomery County, Pa., where the prosecutors lodged the charges, by arguing that potential jurors in Montgomery County, in suburban Philadelphia, were tainted by intense pretrial publicity.

O’Neill told jurors they will be bused to Montgomery County to hear testimony in a trial that is scheduled to begin June 5 and last two to three weeks. He said they would be sequestered in a “very nice hotel.”

“I’m a judge from a really far away place… it’s called Montgomery County,” O’Neill said.

The 79-year-old actor arrived at the courthouse in a tan jacket and a tie spotted with large orange and yellow polka-dots. Cosby, who says he’s legally blind, leaned heavily on the arm of his public relations representative and carried a slender wooden cane. When he entered the courtroom he cupped a box of facial tissues in his hand, then slid it around the wooden defense table until it was positioned just within his reach.

He entered a room filled with Pittsburgh-area residents, some wearing gear of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. Of the 100 or so potential jurors, only about 12 are blacks, according to an unofficial count. That closely approximates the racial breakdown here in Allegheny County.

During the questioning, which is expected to last for several days, O’Neill disclosed some of the potential witnesses, including Cosby’s former personal chef, Conrad Ste Marthe, and Gloria Allred, the feminist attorney who represents more than two dozen women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault or harassment.

O’Neill, who sat at an elevated judge’s bench beneath a large coat of arms featuring two black stallions, demonstrated his folksy style while addressing jurors. At one point, he told a story about a judge who responded to jurors complaining about potential hardships by unattaching his prosthetic arm and waving it around.

A ripple of laughter went through the room.