PHILADELPHIA (KDKA/AP) – Bill Cosby went on trial Monday on charges he drugged and sexually assaulted a woman more than a decade ago, with prosecutors immediately introducing evidence the 79-year-old TV star once known as America’s Dad had done it before to someone else.
The prosecution’s opening witness was not the person Cosby is charged with abusing, but another woman, who broke down in tears as she testified that the comedian violated her in the mid-1990s at a hotel bungalow in Los Angeles.
Cosby is on trial on charges he assaulted Andrea Constand, a former employee of Temple University’s basketball program, at his suburban Philadelphia mansion in 2004. His good-guy reputation already in ruins, he could get 10 years in prison if convicted.
“I felt like I was underwater,” were the very powerful words from the first witness, describing how she felt when she said Bill Cosby allegedly made her take a white pill and then sexually assaulted her.
It was an unconventional start to a criminal case like this by the prosecution. Essentially, she is what is called a prior bad act witness, allowable under Rule of Evidence 404b when offering testimony showing a motive, a common scheme, or a plan, among other things.
What this witness said happened to her back in the 1990s is stunningly similar to what happened to the victim in this criminal case in Montgomery County.
She looked right at the jury and said Cosby invited her to his house, made her take a white pill to help her relax and drink wine. She said when she took it she felt like she was under water. She couldn’t scream when she wanted to and couldn’t pull her clothing over her exposed body parts even though she wanted to.
She said Cosby used to talk to her in a “fatherly Cliff Huxtable kind of way.” Speaking of, the actress who played Rudy on the Cosby, Keshia Knight Pulliam, led him into court by the arm.
She told reporters she was there to support her TV dad.
“I want to be the person that I would like to have if the tables were turned,” she said. “Right now it’s the jury’s job and the jury’s decision to determine guilt or innocence. It’s not mine or anyone else’s.”
Cosby’s wife, Camille, was not in court.
Defense counsel, Brian McMonagle, was extremely aggressive in crossing the prior bad act witness and pointed out inconsistencies in her story. He appeared frustrated and was raising his voice much of the time.
At one point, he accused the woman of looking at her lawyer, Gloria Allred, who was sitting in the front row. McMonagle also accused the woman of getting “selective amnesia in this case.”
The prosecution delivered a very strong opening statement and looked well-prepared. Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden made the Commonwealth’s opening statement. She had a theme of trust, betrayal and the inability to consent.
Both the prosecution and defense agree that there was sexual contact between Cosby and the alleged victim. Both sides also agree he gave her pills to help her relax.
The issues for the jury to decide boil down to whether the pills left her incapacitated and whether she consented to the sexual contact.
Lead defense attorney McMonagle hung his hat on the fact that an exhaustive investigation was done by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office under former DA Bruce Castor and it led to no criminal charges being filed. McMonagle left the jurors with a cliffhanger in his open when he promised them that they would know more than the DA’s Office did back then by the end of the trial.
Feden, the prosecutor, warned the jury not to fall into the trap of confusing celebrities with the characters they play.
“We think we really know them,” she said. “In reality, we only have a glimpse of who they really are.”
Cosby’s lawyers tried repeatedly to get the case thrown out, arguing that a previous district attorney promised him he would never be charged, and that witnesses have died, memories have faded and the comedian is all but blind.
KDKA Legal Editor Julie Grant is in Montgomery County to cover the trial. During an interview on the “KDKA Morning News,” she said the prosecution will need to rely on the testimony of accuser Andrea Constand, as well as another woman who alleges Cosby assaulted her in the 1990s, because of a lack of forensic evidence.
“The prosecutor…just made the statute of limitations for an aggravated indecent assault charge. It’s a 12-year statute of limitation. That would have expired in 2016, but they filed it at the very end of 2015,” said Grant.
Grant adds the testimony of the accuser will be “critical” and while Cosby isn’t expect to testify, she wouldn’t be surprised if he does take the stand at some point.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)