Judge Steven O’Neill looked out at the sea of arms raised by potential jurors in the Bill Cosby case and realized he needed to change his instructions. Rather than raise their juror numbers at the same time to give an affirmative answer, as they did for other questions, he asked them to raise their numbers row by row. “Otherwise,” O’Neill said, “your arms arms are going to fall off.”
The question prompting so much response from prospective jurors today was whether they had heard of the #MeToo movement in the entertainment industry. All but one of 120 jurors signaled their familiarity. It was a sign of how the movement and media saturation of Cosby’s accusations hovered over the first day of jury selection at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, PA and how they could affect the upcoming trial.
After a morning of group questions and a handful of individual interviews, one juror was selected: a white man who appears to be in his late 20s or early 30s. He had heard of #MeToo, but was a rarity in that he expressed no knowledge of the allegations against the famed comedian, who is facing trial over an accusation he sexually assaulted former Temple employee Andrea Constand in 2004.
A mistrial was declared in the first trial last June after a jury was unable to reach a verdict.
Just as prospective jurors were familiar with #MeToo, many also said today they had already made up their minds about the case. Of the 120 brought into the courtroom Monday, 110 noted they had knowledge of the allegations against Cosby, and 68 indicated they had already decided on his innocence or guilt. About one-third of the jury pool said they’d been sexually assaulted or knew a close friend or relative who’d been sexually assaulted.
The prosecution and defense responded to those numbers by agreeing to strike 88 potential jurors with cause. On Tuesday, they are scheduled to conduct interviews with 27 potential jurors who were hailed today, and an additional 120 jurors will be called to the courthouse.
“In some ways the seating of the case has gotten much tougher in light of this MeToo moment,” said Dan Filler, dean of the Drexel University Kline School of Law in Philadelphia and a nationally recognized expert on sex crimes. “I do think that the lawyers would love to figure out which jurors are feeling politically energized by the movement right now.”
In most cases, the prosecution and defense start with a blank slate. With Cosby, neither can avoid the details already well known to most of the country and the swirling cultural changes of #MeToo. Filler said the key will be for the lawyers to determine the specific aspects of the allegations the jurors do know and what they think about them.
“If I’m the defense and I’ve got a juror who’s heard about the case and the hung jury, that might be good,” he said. “But if they heard about all these other women and testimony that was excluded last time, that might be horrendous.”
After 50 preliminary questions from O’Neill before lunch, he interviewed six individual potential jurors in front of the prosecution and defense in the afternoon. The juror selected for duty was chosen after giving a terse “yes” to questions about whether he could be impartial. The defense struck a middle-aged woman who said she had been sexually abused but said she wouldn’t let the abuse impact her decisions as a juror.
Each side has six strikes left, meaning they can eliminate six potential jurors each even if the other side accepts the potential juror.
Last year, the jurors were selected from Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, rather than in Montgomery County, a suburb of Philadelphia. Montgomery County is more affluent than Allegheny County and has a larger percentage of residents with college degrees, though nearly identical racial demographics.
Filler said to think of Montgomery County as featuring a classic suburban jury pool. Whereas in Allegheny County or other urban areas, prospective jurors might show a distrust of police and authority figures, not one of 120 potential jurors said they were less likely to believe police officers because of their jobs. Almost half of the jurors noted they would be more likely to believe police.