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Prosecutors say Bill Cosby engaged in a pattern of sexually abusive behavior

Prosecutors say Bill Cosby engaged in a pattern of sexually abusive behavior
Bill Cosby, center, returns to court for a pretrial hearing in his sexual assault case at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa., on Dec. 13. (David Maialetti / Associated Press)

Bill Cosby is a serial abuser who leveraged his power and paternal appeal to drug and sexually assault women across many years and cities, prosecutors alleged in court Tuesday.

The Montgomery County district attorney hopes to convince a judge that 13 women who've accused Cosby of abuse should be allowed to testify at his upcoming trial.

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"Over the course of decades, [Cosby] engaged in a pattern of non-consensual assault on young women who were in an unconscious state due to an intoxicant" that he gave them, said the D.A., Kevin Steele, at the pretrial hearing. He then ran through an exhaustive list of dates, places and other details of the alleged incidents.

Cosby is facing three counts of aggravated indecent assault stemming from a 2004 incident at his home in Cheltenham, Pa., with former Temple University women's basketball employee Andrea Constand. He is set to go on trial in the spring.

Prosecutors hope to call the accusers — many of whom have come forward either in civil suits or media interviews — as witnesses under the so-called Prior Bad Acts clause.

While Pennsylvania does not typically allow accusers to testify in an unrelated case, it makes exceptions when those accusers help establish a "common scheme" on the defendant's part.

Cosby's attorneys want to stop the 13 women from taking the stand, fearing that testimony about unrelated events would sway the jury. The women would also be describing situations they say occurred decades ago, which the defense says makes them difficult to refute. The statutes of limitations for bringing legal action in those cases have expired.

Steele drew a portrait of a man who had a clear modus operandi: capitalizing on his status to assault younger women. He called Cosby a "selective offender — striking when he has access, when he controls the setting, when he can be reasonably sure to conceal his actions."

The prosecutor detailed the stories of 10 of the 13 potential witnesses, including an alleged incident at a club in New York in 1971; another in 1984 when Cosby met an aspiring actress more than 20 years his junior and took her to a home in Reno; and another in Beverly Hills in 1996 involving an assistant to one of Cosby's agents.

Common themes emerged across the accounts: the women said they believed Cosby to be a father figure, and they recalled regaining consciousness in compromised sexual positions after ingesting a substance Cosby had provided.

While many of the alleged details were well-known from media reports and even a few civil lawsuits, they had never before been aired in a criminal proceeding.

Steele cited an earlier Pennsylvania case that established the "common scheme" principal. "As the number of such incidents grows," he said, "the likelihood the defendant's conduct was unintentional decreases."

The proceedings adjourned for the day before Brian McMonagle, Cosby's attorney, could fully make his case. But the defense has called the reliability of the earlier incidents into question and said that, in any event, they shouldn't be germane in this case.

"Other accusers should play no role," McMonagle said Tuesday.

The defense also argued that social media posts from some of the women should be considered part of a pattern of "online collaboration" — showing prosecutorial activism in seeking out victims rather than a common scheme on the defendant's part.

McMonagle is expected to rebuff both the accusations and their relevance as the hearing continues Wednesday.

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As Steele read through the details, comprehensively but dryly, Cosby assumed his usual low, half-reclined position in his chair, sometimes stroking his chin or resting the side of his head against his fingers.

In a surreal turn, Cosby broke a months-long courtroom silence to make two unsolicited pronouncements from his seat. At one point, he shouted back, "1937. July 12" when Judge Steven T. O'Neill asked Steele about the defendant's date of birth. And when the judge asked Steele in what city an alleged sexual assault at the Drake Hotel had occurred, prompting the D.A. to say, "I think New York," Cosby belted out, "No, the Drake is in Chicago."

Tensions rose Tuesday as Steele and McMonagle squared off over whether the women could be identified by name at the hearing.

"What we're doing here is another simple attempt to intimidate the witnesses," Steele said. "I'm not going to be part of that."

"I don't know what this controversy is over names," McMonagle replied. "Most of them have done press conferences … some have written books, some are on tour…. These are not children."

At one point the two lawyers addressed each other directly, with the prosecutor using particularly loud tones.

"It's part of the record," McMonagle said.

"No, it's not part of the record," Steele said angrily.

"Lower your voice, Mr. Steele; there is no place for that," Judge O'Neill interjected. "This is a court proceeding."

Yelling broke out again later in the day over whether a PowerPoint presentation with the victims' names should be shown in open court.

Steele stormed across the courtroom to a projection screen, pointed at the gallery and said that McMonagle was trying to "manipulate" the public. McMonagle yelled back that he didn't put the screen there.

As the cross-talk escalated, O'Neill jumped in again. "Both of you, stop," he said.

"You don't want to get involved with the Sheriff's Office if you two can't get along," he said, an apparent reference to a potential contempt-of-court violation.

Both sides eventually agreed to the PowerPoint presentation being showed privately to the judge.

The hearing comes amid a report in the New York Post's Page Six that Cosby's lawyers are hoping for a plea deal that would help their client avoid jail time. But it's very unlikely the prosecution would cut such a deal at this point. It has already won a number of key pretrial rulings — including the right to use deposition testimony Cosby gave in Constand's civil case — and Steele has staked his career on prosecuting the comedian.

For his part, Cosby appeared in court moving slightly more assuredly than he did at appearances earlier this fall. His lawyers have argued the 79-year-old's fragile health and eyesight could inhibit his right to a fair trial.

The Constand case is being watched closely by victims' rights activists, who see Cosby as symbolic of male privilege they say has led to under-prosecution and concealment of sex-abuse crimes. Allowing the women to testify, they argue, would shine a light on the issue while giving them a measure of relief.

For the prosecution, the accusers serve a different purpose: bolstering a case that experts say contains a number of exploitable problems.

The accusers' presence in the courtroom will be determined after arguments over whether their testimony is critical Cosby-related information or a jury-biasing irrelevancy.

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O'Neill hinted that the hearing would turn on legal reasoning, not the persuasiveness of the accusers' potential testimony.

"My general reading is that I'm probably not the gatekeeper for credibility," he said.

And, he added, there was no reason to think this would be an all-or-nothing proposition.

"There's nothing to say this court can't review everything and [come up with] a number between zero and 13," the judge said.

On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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UPDATES:

4:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional detail from the courtroom.

3:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional quotes and detail from the courtroom.

12:00 p.m.: This article was updated with information on yelling that broke out between the lawyers.

This article originally published at 10:35 a.m.

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