Opening of Bill Cosby’s sex assault retrial shapes up as another #MeToo moment, complete with topless protester
A topless protester with “Women’s Lives Matter” written on her body in red ink charged at Bill Cosby on Monday morning as he walked into the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, for the start of his sexual assault
Even before attorneys uttered a single word of their opening statements in Bill Cosby’s sexual assault retrial, the 80-year-old comedian came face to face with the past.
Making his way toward the entrance of the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa., on Monday morning, Cosby was suddenly confronted by a bare-breasted protester who leaped over a police barricade and lunged in his direction before deputies tackled her and wrestled her to the ground in a clump of shrubbery.
Written in red ink on her body were the words: “Women’s Lives Matter.”
As it turned out, she was 38-year-old Nicolle Rochelle, who had years ago been a child actress on his hit sitcom “The Cosby Show.” It was a TV staple of the ’80s and ’90s, in which the comedian played kindly physician Cliff Huxtable — a portrayal that earned him the sobriquet “America’s Dad.”
The comedian stands accused of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand, a former Temple University basketball official who settled a civil case with him more than a decade ago. In the initial 11-day criminal trial, which ended in June 2017, jurors were unable to reach a verdict.
This time around, the courtroom drama is playing out against the explosive backdrop of the #MeToo movement.
As the first high-profile celebrity trial since the movement emerged with demands that sexual predators be held to account, the case against Cosby is in many ways typical of others that have been brought to light: a close encounter between a powerful, wealthy famous man, in a setting of his choosing, with a much younger woman who looked up to him and hoped he could help advance her education and career.
At the time of their 2004 encounter, which the defense claims was consensual, Cosby was 66; Constand was 30.
A jury made up of seven men and five women — 10 white, two black — was sworn in Monday. In his retrial, Cosby faces three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
Much of the day was taken up with a closed-door hearing in the chambers of Judge Steven O’Neill to hash out an alternate juror’s claim that she had overheard a juror say Cosby was guilty and the trial was a waste of time.
The judge questioned all 12 jurors and six alternates about their ability to hear the case impartially.
In his opening statement, Dist. Atty. Kevin Steele sought to sum up Cosby’s behavior toward Constand on the night in question, telling the jury: “This case is about trust. This case is about betrayal.”
In a preview of what is certain to be wrenching testimony from Constand, Steele portrayed a calculated assault after Cosby coaxed her into taking blue pills he described as “friends” during an evening at his suburban Philadelphia estate.
“She will describe how her body felt … she’s jolted during this and she — she feels herself being violated,” Steele said. “She feels a hand on her. She recalls him taking her hand and putting it on his penis. She’ll tell you she remembers waking up on this sofa with clothes disheveled at 4 in the morning, hours after this starts.”
The district attorney also said that Cosby had paid nearly $3.4 million in the 2006 civil settlement, which until now had been confidential. The disclosure seemed aimed at preempting an expected defense strategy of characterizing Constand as a gold digger.
The prosecution calls the payment proof that Cosby had something serious to hide; Cosby’s new lawyer, Los Angeles-based Tom Mesereau, is expected to solicit damning testimony from a former co-worker that Constand had once mused about accusing a famous man of sexual misconduct in order to leverage funds.
Mesereau was to deliver his opening statements Tuesday.
Unlike in the previous trial, when only one other alleged victim of Cosby was allowed to testify, five additional accusers are slated to take the witness stand this time.
Mesereau, who defended Michael Jackson on child molestation charges, fought to exclude other alleged victims, saying their testimony would be unfairly prejudicial. The defense also argued that lawyers could not properly prepare for cross-examination of witnesses who were testifying about incidents alleged to have taken place many years earlier.
Of the 19 women the prosecution sought to call, the judge set the number at five. The best known of those expected to testify is ex-model Janice Dickinson, who has alleged that Cosby drugged and assaulted her at Lake Tahoe in 1982.
The judge has said the retrial could take up to a month. If convicted, Cosby could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Rochelle, the topless protester, is now a Europe-based actress and performance artist. She appeared in five episodes of the show during 1991 and 1992. She was 12 at the time.
In a telephone interview with reporters hours after her protest left her facing a disorderly conduct charge and possibly a fine, Rochelle hastened to make clear that Cosby had never behaved inappropriately toward her on set.
But the avalanche of accusations against the comedian galvanized her, she said.
“It felt personal,” she said. “I wanted him to feel my presence, and feel uncomfortable.”
Rochelle, who was released after being charged, said she would abide by authorities’ orders to stay away from the venue of the retrial.
“Probably a good idea, yeah,” she said.
Cosby seemed startled by the morning encounter with her but was physically unscathed. Nonetheless, barricades were placed in double formation when he left the courthouse Monday.
7:15 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with the prosecution’s opening statement and other details of the trial.
11 a.m.: The article was updated with comments from Cosby protester.
9:57 a.m.: The article was updated with the identity of the topless protester and details about a delay in opening statements in the trial.
This article was originally published at 6:20 a.m.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.