Bill Cosby’s trial for sexual assault opened Monday in Pennsylvania with tearful testimony as prosecutors painted the megastar turned pariah as a sexual predator: one who established trust with his alleged victims before incapacitating them with drugs and alcohol.
In one of America’s biggest celebrity trials in years, the pioneering black comedian faces three counts of aggravated indecent assault, which each carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail and a $25,000 fine.
The 79-year-old, for decades feted by millions as “America’s Dad,” is on trial for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting a Temple University employee at his Philadelphia mansion 13 years ago.
Dressed in a navy suit, he sat next to his high-powered defense team at the Montgomery County Courthouse in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, either leaning back, starring in the direction of the jury or casting his eyes down.
Around 60 women have accused the Emmy-winning television star and comedian of being a serial sexual predator for decades, ending his career and leaving him isolated by friends and celebrities.
But his fate rests on the allegations of just one woman, Andrea Constand, over one incident in January 2004. It is the only criminal case against him as most of the alleged abuse happened too long ago to prosecute.
Constand, a 44-year-old Canadian, was at the time director of basketball operations at Temple University, where Cosby served on the Board of Trustees at the time of the alleged assault in January 2004.
“This man used his power and his fame and his previously practiced method of placing a young, trusting woman in an incapacitated state so he could sexually pleasure himself,” said assistant district attorney Kristen Feden.
Constand alleges Cosby plied her with pills and wine before assaulting her after she had gone to his house to seek career advice.
Cosby says he gave Constand Benadryl to relieve stress, insists their sexual relations were consensual and accuses her of lying.
“As she went in and out of consciousness, she witnessed her body being used to sexually gratify the defendant,” Feden said. “Because she was in that incapacitated state, she couldn’t consent.”
Feden said the trial would “shatter” illusions that Cosby was the real-life embodiment of his signature character, lovable obstetrician and father Cliff Huxtable, a role that smashed through racial barriers.
– ‘Sounds, grunting sounds’ –
The first witness to testify was a former assistant to Cosby’s Hollywood agent, who told the jury that the actor drugged and sexually assaulted her in a similar manner at the Bel Air Hotel in 1996.
Kelly Johnson said she held Cosby in the “highest regard and esteem” until he invited her for lunch and insisted she take a pill to “relax.”
When she “came to,” Johnson said that she was lying on the bed.
“I remember hearing sounds, grunting sounds,” she said. “My breasts were out, and I felt naked, but the dress wasn’t off of me.”
“He put lotion in my hand and made me touch his penis,” Johnson added, breaking down into sobs.
Cosby, who says he is now legally blind, appeared not to look in the direction of his accuser, at one point sitting with his back to her as his lawyer subjected Johnson to a terse, impatient cross-examination.
Keshia Knight Pulliam, who played his daughter Rudy on the 1984-1992 sitcom, attended the opening statements of the trial, but there was no sign of Cosby’s wife of 53 years, Camille.
– ‘Just a citizen’ –
Cosby’s defense team lectured the jury on the high burden of proof and warned them not to get distracted by his fame or by “finger-pointing.”
“The false accusation of sexual assault — it’s an attack on human dignity, it’s an attack on human innocence. It’s not a distraction, it can destroy a man,” said one of his lawyers, Brian McMonagle.
McMonagle urged the jury to see Cosby as “just a citizen,” saying his infidelity as a husband had made him “vulnerable to accusations” and tore into Johnson, aggressively trying to pick holes in her testimony.
Constand, who is gay, is also expected to testify. She initially settled the case with a civil suit in 2006, but the case was re-opened in 2015 when Montgomery County claimed new evidence had come to light.
Ultimately, it comes down to her word against his.
The prosecution will lean on Cosby’s words in a 2005 court deposition, in which he admitted obtaining sedatives with a view to having sex.
The defense on Monday tore into Constand’s credibility in its opening statement, alleging that she was untruthful “time and time again” and painted their relationship as consensual, one that involved many meetings and alcohol, and alleged that Constand telephoned the star 53 times.
The seven-man, five-woman jury will be sequestered for the duration of the trial, which is expected to last about two weeks.