By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear a two-pronged appeal of Bill Cosby's 2018 sexual assault conviction, with the disgraced entertainer's lawyers asking the justices to either grant him a new trial or drop the case.
Cosby's lawyers blame his conviction in part on the national fervor in 2018 surrounding the #MeToo movement, which sought to hold powerful men accountable for unpunished sexual assaults. Cosby was the first celebrity convicted of sexual abuse after the start of the movement.
"The American criminal justice system was designed to convict defendants based upon their conduct - not on their general character," Cosby's lawyers argue in their brief. "The fervor of the #MeToo movement rendered this cherished constitutional tenet obsolete at Cosby’s trial."
Cosby, a comedian and actor best known as the lovable father from the 1980s TV hit “The Cosby Show,” was convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault after drugging a former friend, Andrea Constand, in January 2004 at his suburban Philadelphia mansion. At the time Constand was director of operations of Temple University women’s basketball team. Cosby is serving a three-to-ten-year sentence in a state prison near Philadelphia.
One prong of Cosby’s appeal, which will be heard virtually by the seven justices because of pandemic restrictions, attacks the decision by Montgomery County Judge Steven O’Neill to allow testimony at the trial by five “prior bad act” witnesses.
Prosecutors hoped the testimony of five women who over the years have also accused the entertainer of sexual assault, would show a pattern of behavior by Cosby of befriending younger women with promises of career help and then drugging and raping them.
They were among some 50 women who accused Cosby, now 83, of sexual assaults going back decades, though all the accusations but Constand’s were too old to prosecute.
Cosby’s legal team, led by Jennifer Bonjean, a Brooklyn lawyer, will argue that the five women’s claims are too dissimilar to Constand’s complaint to have been allowed.
His lawyers will also argue that Cosby was given immunity from prosecution by former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor in 2005 in return for his deposition in Constand’s civil suit.
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele’s legal team, led by Adrienne Jappe, an assistant prosecutor at the 2018 trial, disagrees on both counts.
“The trial court properly denied the non-prosecution claim. Its credibility determination and factual-finding that there was no promise is supported by the record. Even if it existed, the district attorney lacked the authority to grant non-statutory immunity,” they write in their brief.
Prosecutors note that testimony by the five women and the invalidity of Castor’s supposed non-prosecution agreement with Cosby passed muster both with O’Neill and the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the state’s intermediate appellate court.
In December 2019, a Pennsylvania appeals court dismissed Cosby’s bid to overturn his conviction. It is unlikely that the Supreme Court will render a decision on Tuesday. It typically takes weeks or even months to hand down rulings.
(Reporting by David DeKok in Harrisburg, Pa.; Editing by Frank McGurty and Matthew Lewis)