Cosby defense accuses prosecutors of racial discrimination

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Jury selection continues in trial that is scheduled to begin opening arguments Monday

Laura McCrystal and Jeremy Roebuck, Tribune News Service

NORRISTOWN, Pa. — The third day of jury selection for Bill Cosby’s second sexual assault trial was temporarily derailed Wednesday morning as the 80-year-old entertainer’s lawyers accused prosecutors of attempting to exclude African-Americans from the panel.

Cosby attorney Kathleen Bliss objected when Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele sought to remove a black woman from consideration, using one of seven chances each side has to strike a potential juror without having to offer an explanation.

Bliss also accused one member of the prosecution team – whom she did not name – of making “discriminatory and repulsive” comments – which she did not detail or describe in open court.

Steele balked at the accusation, insisting it was baseless and lodged solely for the benefit of the dozens of reporters seated in the courtroom. And Judge Steven T. O’Neill ordered both lawyers back into his chambers so he could hear the allegedly offensive remarks that the defense team says it overheard.

After they emerged, Cosby’s lawyers said they weren’t backing down but had agreed to set the issue aside so that jury selection could proceed.

Bliss, in arguments earlier in the morning, suggested that prosecutors would have had no reason other than race to cut the potential juror whose removal started the argument.

“She passed every single stage as a fair and impartial juror,” Bliss said. “There is thus no other explanation other than for race.”

Steele, however, noted that prosecutors already had endorsed the only other two African-Americans to come before them, both of whom were chosen as jurors.

“We have gladly taken both of these seemingly responsible people, and they are on our jury,” he said. “To somehow infer that this isn’t being done for a race-neutral reason is, quite frankly, ludicrous.”

The defense had lodged a similar complaint a day earlier – alleging that prosecutors were systematically attempting to exclude older white men – but O’Neill quickly shot them down.

So far, eight jurors have been chosen to fill the 12 jury spots — four women, four men. Two are black, the others white.

The new member added to the panel Wednesday morning was a middle-age white woman, who pledged that although she had heard about the Cosby case she could set aside all that she had heard if selected.

“I can try,” she said. “It’s still in my head.”

Of the 239 potential jurors summoned to the courthouse Monday and Tuesday, only 10 — about 4 percent — were black.

African-Americans make up about 10 percent of Montgomery County’s population, according to 2016 U.S. Census data.

The jury selection process will continue Wednesday as lawyers continue their search for four more jurors and six alternates – all of whom will be sequestered throughout what is expected to be a monthlong trial.

Cosby is charged with drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand, a former friend and Temple University employee, in 2004.

Opening arguments are scheduled to begin Monday.

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