Pennsylvania judge to hear arguments on moving Cosby criminal trial

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[February 27, 2017]   By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) - Lawyers for comedian Bill Cosby return to court on Monday to argue that his sexual assault case has drawn too much publicity to allow for a fair criminal trial in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

Montgomery County Judge Steven O'Neill will hear arguments on what appears to be the only major pretrial issue remaining in Cosby's sexual assault case, three days after he ruled that prosecutors can call a second accuser as a witness. The trial is scheduled for June.

Cosby, 79, is facing charges that he sexually assaulted Andrea Constand, a former assistant basketball coach at his alma mater Temple University, in 2004.

The case is the only criminal prosecution resulting from accusations against the entertainer by more than four dozen women, though the deluge of allegations has shattered his once family-friendly reputation.

Cosby has denied any wrongdoing and has said his encounter with Constand, like the others, was consensual.

Cosby's lawyers have argued in court papers for either moving the trial to another Pennsylvania county, known as a change in venue, or importing jurors to Montgomery County from elsewhere in the state, known as a change in venire.

The defense noted that Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele, who is leading the prosecution, campaigned in 2015 by criticizing a predecessor for failing to pursue the Cosby case. The resulting news coverage has made selecting an impartial jury from the county impossible, they argued.

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Prosecutors oppose moving the trial but have consented to a change in venire. However, they have balked at Cosby's suggestion that only a county with more than 1.2 million people can yield a large enough jury pool to ensure fairness.

In court filings, Steele has pointed out that only Pittsburgh and Philadelphia meet that criterion and said the defense appears to be shopping for a favorable jury.

Under state law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court selects the new county when a judge approves a change of venire.

On Friday, in a blow to Cosby's defense, O'Neill ruled that prosecutors could call at trial another woman who has accused him of a similar assault in the 1990s. The district attorney's office had sought to call as many as 13 other women.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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