April 3, 2018 / 2:06 PM / 6 months ago

Cosby can call witness to undercut sex assault accuser, judge rules

(The April 3 story is refiled to fix typo in paragraph 4.)

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby arrives for jury selection for his sexual assault trial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, U.S. April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By David DeKok

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - Defense lawyers at Bill Cosby’s retrial on sexual assault charges can call a witness they say will undermine his accuser’s credibility, a Pennsylvania judge said on Tuesday, reversing his ruling that barred the same witness from the first trial of the comedian once known as “America’s Dad.”

The ruling to allow Margo Jackson’s testimony came on the second day of jury selection for the second trial where the 80-year-old entertainer will face charges that he sexually assaulted a staffer more than a decade ago at his alma mater, Temple University in Philadelphia. His first trial on those charges last year ended in a hung jury.

Montgomery County Judge Steven O’Neill also said defense lawyers could introduce evidence that Cosby made a payout to accuser Andrea Constand to settle the lawsuit she filed against him in 2005. Details of that settlement were not aired during the first trial and have remained secret for more than a decade.

Together, the two rulings will bolster the defense’s strategy to portray Constand as a liar who invented the incident to extort money from the comedian best known for his role as Cliff Huxtable, the wise and witty dad on the long-running hit sitcom “The Cosby Show.”

The trial is scheduled to begin with opening statements on April 9 in the Norristown, Pennsylvania court.

Cosby is charged with drugging and sexually assaulting Constand at his home in suburban Philadelphia more than 14 years ago. The first trial end in a mistrial last June when the jury could not reach a verdict.

Cosby has denied allegations from more than 50 women that he sexually assaulted them. Constand’s accusations are the only ones recent enough to allow for criminal prosecution.

Defense lawyers had asked O’Neill to permit Jackson to testify that Constand, a former co-worker, once told her she could profit by accusing a famous person of sexual assault.

During the first trial, O’Neill barred Jackson from taking the stand as a rebuttal witness, ruling the statements were hearsay. But he changed his mind following both written submissions and oral arguments at pretrial hearings last week.

The prosecution’s case will also unfold differently this time. O’Neill has granted them permission to call five other Cosby accusers over defense objections. In the first trial, they could only call one.

Those witnesses are expected to testify about similar alleged sexual assaults as prosecutors try to show that Cosby engaged in a pattern of misconduct.

(This version of the story corrects in paragraph 2, adds dropped words “to allow Margo Jackson’s testimony”)

Reporting by David DeKok, additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by David Gregorio

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