Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cosby Trial Puts Court Stenographer in Spotlight

Montgomery County Court stenographer Ginny Womelsdorf took center stage at Bill Cosby’s high-profile sexual assault trial when all eyes, and ears, in the courtroom were drawn to her as she had to recite the testimony of three trial witnesses from whom jurors wanted to hear again.

Womelsdorf had the tedious task of transcribing the previous testimony. Then the judge and lawyers informed her as to the passages that were to be read to the jurors. One of the testimonies included that of Cosby’s alleged accuser, the main witness in the case. Talk about a stressful situation with so many eyes watching you on a national scale.

But Womelsdorf, who has been assigned to the courtroom of Judge Steven T. O’Neill, who is presiding over the Cosby trial, stepped to the plate and completed the task with clarity, professionalism and composure. She read more than 30 minutes during one recitation and nearly an hour during another, occasionally taking a sip of water to clear a scratchy throat. Despite one brief coughing spell, Womelsdorf plowed forward, never skipping a beat.

O’Neill told jurors Womelsdorf “is the best in this country as far as I’m concerned.”

When @MontcoCourtNews tweeted about Womelsdorf’s performance under pressure, social media users responded kindly.

“Mad props to her!” one said. Another said, “Get that lady a parafin wax hand dip and some Ludens stat!” 

I have always said court reporters, those women and men who sit in courtrooms on a daily basis and record the hearings in civil and criminal cases, are some of the hardest working people at the courthouse.

They sit for hours listening to endless testimony, making sure to capture every word correctly - which can be difficult when a witness is soft-spoken or speaking way too quickly - and then spend hours transcribing that testimony for judges and lawyers. The reporters must keep track of all prosecution and defense exhibits and make sure they are properly marked as evidence during trials.

And they are often summoned to court by judges at a moment’s notice, having to drop whatever else they’re working on.

It’s not uncommon to see the registered professional reporters working late into the evening in their offices next to the press room at the courthouse. There is a lot of reliance on court reporters and I have no doubt the judicial system would come to a screeching halt if they weren’t around.

Ginny deserves some recognition for a job well done during an extremely intense situation at the highest-profile case that ever played out in Montgomery County. Bravo, Ginny!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Cosby Defense Tried One Last Time to Limit Quaaludes Testimony

Bill Cosby’s defense team made one last effort to limit testimony about Quaaludes at Cosby’s sexual assault trial.

Defense lawyers Brian J. McMonagle and Angela C. Agrusa fought to prevent a forensic toxicologist from testifying for prosecutors about the effects of Quaaludes on an individual who consumes them, according to court documents released on Friday.
Brian McMonagle & Angela Agrusa/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

But that attempt failed and Dr. Timothy Rohrig testified on Friday as one of the last prosecution witnesses during the fifth day of Cosby’s sexual assault trial before Judge Steven T. O’Neill. Cosby, 79, is accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with Andrea Constand, a former Temple University athletic department employee, at his Cheltenham home after plying her with blue pills and wine sometime between mid-January and mid-February 2004.

McMonagle and Agrusa argued in court papers that Rohrig was initially identified by prosecutors to testify regarding “the general effects of Diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl.” McMonagle claimed prosecutors later put forth Rohrig’s opinions regarding “the general pharmacology of methaqualone, more commonly known as Quaaludes.”

Defense Lawyer Brian J. McMonagle/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
“Rohrig should be precluded from testifying regarding Quaaludes because there is not a scintilla of evidence in this case that Quaaludes were involved in the alleged encounter with Andrea Constand,” McMonagle and Agrusa wrote in court papers.

McMonagle and Agrusa maintained Rohrig’s testimony regarding Quaaludes “could only serve to confuse and prejudice the jury,” and therefore should be excluded.

“Rohrig’s carefully parsed phrasing, that Ms. Constand’s symptoms “do not exclude the possibility” that she ingested Quaaludes or some other unidentified and speculative central nervous system depressant drug highlights that his opinion is based on pure conjecture, untethered to any evidence in this case,” the defense team added.

While prosecutors have not specifically identified what they believe Cosby gave to Constand, with the evidence presented to the jury, they suggested it could have been Quaaludes or Benadryl. Testimony revealed Benadryl did come in a blue pill form around the time of the alleged incident.
Bill Cosby Leaves Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

During the trial, District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and co-prosecutors Kristen Feden and M. Stewart Ryan presented the jury Cosby’s police statements and his 2005 testimony in a deposition connected with a civil suit brought by Constand in which he said he gave Constand “the equivalent of one and a half” Benadryl when Constand was “talking about stress.”

Prosecutors have also presented the jury with Cosby’s deposition testimony that he obtained Quaaludes, a 1970s party drug, in the past to give to young women with whom he wanted to have sex.

When asked if he ever gave the Quaaludes to the young women without their knowledge, Cosby responded, “No,” according to his deposition testimony. Cosby also claimed that he did not have any Quaaludes, which were banned in the U.S. in the 1980s, in his possession or in any of his residences around the time he met Constand in 2002.
Montgomery County DA Kevin Steele/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Rohrig testified the symptoms described by Constand could be consistent with Benadryl.

“It can cause significant sedation. It is a central nervous system depressant. It can and has been used as a drug to facilitate sexual assaults,” testified Rohrig, adding Quaaludes, are also sedatives and can cause similar side-effects.

Stay tuned. I’ll have daily reports for Digital First Media publications when the trial resumes on Monday. You can also find breaking Cosby news by following @MontcoCourtNews on Twitter.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Cosby Trial Cellphone Woes: "Does That Make Me Crazy?"

Reporting From Bill Cosby Trial/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Cellphones have been the source of woe for Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill and court administrators at Bill Cosby’s sex assault trial as they try to enforce the restrictions set by a decorum order imposed by President Judge Thomas M. DelRicci.

“Really?” O’Neill muttered incredulously when a courtroom spectator’s cellphone ringtone blared and the song “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley swelled in the courtroom. “Turn off the phones! They will be confiscated.”
Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

That cellphone ringtone was perfect for that moment. “Does that make me crazy?” the lyrics go. I imagine O’Neill was saying to himself, “YES!”

Under the previously issued decorum order, all cellphones must be turned off and out of sight in the courtroom.

But just as Brian J. McMonagle began delivering his opening statement to jurors on Monday, someone’s cellphone ringtone blared with a different song, something I didn’t recognize.

Brian J. McMonagle/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“I brought music to the courtroom,” McMonagle said lightheartedly as he shrugged the moment off, not letting the interruption affect his composure or his well-executed opening delivery.

And despite numerous daily admonitions from the judge throughout the trial, a Cosby supporter sitting in the front row of the courtroom used his cellphone to snap a photograph. Angry court administrators immediately chastised the man and required him on the spot to delete the photograph from his cellphone.

There is a Pennsylvania law that prohibits photographing and videotaping court proceedings. Some of us veteran court reporters roll our eyes each time O’Neill reiterates the NO CELLPHONE POLICY but then low-and-behold another cellphone goes off.  So I understand, to a certain extent, the judge’s endless nagging about the issue to spectators.

The cellphone disruptions have come mainly from the public and not media members.

Gloria Allred/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Well-known celebrity and civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred created several stirs, her phone ringing twice during the first week of the trial in main Courtroom A. On Wednesday Allred’s cellphone rang during the testimony of alleged Cosby victim, Andrea Constand. Court administrators asked her to leave.

During an interview outside the courthouse, a reporter asked Allred, “What happened in court with your cellphone?”

“Oh, that’s what’s really important to the outcome of this case,” said Allred, shrugging off the reporter’s question. “It’s not on my radar. What’s on my radar is justice in this case.”

Later Allred told Associated Press reporters she believed her phone had been turned off and was baffled by the incident that garnered some unwanted attention. Allred’s phone appeared to be out of sight and in her purse when it rang.

Allred, 75, was permitted back in the courtroom later in the day. But on Friday, Allred’s cellphone blared again. Apparently, recognizing her mistake again she got up to leave as a court administrator was storming down the center aisle of the courtroom in her direction, likely prepared to ask her to leave again.

Gloria Allred/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Allred has been a constant presence at the Cosby trial and she represents many of the 13 other alleged Cosby accusers that prosecutors sought to have included at the trial.

Allred has often stepped to a podium outside the courthouse to address the press during breaks at the trial.

Also on Wednesday, local NBC10 Digital reporter Brian McCrone was stripped of his credentials to cover the Cosby trial after court officials said he sent a text message while the trial was in session. McCrone was taken before President Judge Thomas M. DelRicci, who accepted his apology but nonetheless barred him from the courtroom.

Under the decorum order issued for the Cosby trial, all electronic transmissions from the courtroom are prohibited.

According to testimony, McCrone stipulated that he violated the decorum order that was issued on May 18. But DelRicci appeared annoyed when McCrone’s lawyer hinted at wanting to make a First Amendment argument in connection with the matter.

President Judge Thomas DelRicci/Submitted Photo

DelRicci, who apparently had a photograph of the text message, said it wasn’t a First Amendment issue but “a protocol issue.” The judge said media members received specific instructions as to what was and what wasn’t permitted at the trial. The judge also questioned why, if someone had a problem with the May 18 decorum order, it wasn’t raised earlier.

According to testimony, the text message in question was “innocuous” and not associated with what was occurring at the trial at the time.

Stay tuned. I’ll have daily reports for Digital First Media publications when the trial resumes on Monday. You can also find breaking Cosby news by following @MontcoCourtNews on Twitter.

A Parrot, "Ozzie," Gets Attention, Brings Much-Needed Laughter to Cosby Trial

“Ozzie” the parrot flew right in to Bill Cosby trial testimony this week, providing one of the more light-hearted moments at a trial characterized by very sordid details.

Montco Courthouse Home to Bill Cosby Trial/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
A recording of the Jan. 17, 2005, phone conversation Cosby had with the mother of alleged sex assault victim Andrea Constand was at the center of the trial on Wednesday when it was played for the jury during the testimony of Andrea’s Canadian mother, Gianna.

During the phone conversation, Cosby, who initiated the call from Los Angeles, California, apparently suspected that Mrs. Constand was recording the call at her home in Canada and questioned her about a persistent beeping he heard on the phone, according to testimony. Gianna Constand told an obviously suspicious Cosby the sound was probably her parrot in the background or her call waiting, testifying she might have been getting a call from another daughter at the time.

At that point, Gianna Constand turned to the jury and District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and said, “Yes, I do have a parrot. His name is ‘Ozzie,’” she said lovingly, eliciting chuckles from everyone in the courtroom.

At that moment “Ozzie” had stolen the show at Cosby’s trial.

Testimony revealed Gianna Constand really was recording Cosby, whom she met in 2003 through her daughter, with a recorder she purchased earlier that day at a Radio Shack in Pickering. Appearing anguished at times, Andrea’s mother testified she recorded the conversation to capture Cosby’s alleged admission to giving her daughter pills and to having sexual contact with Andrea. During the recorded conversation she asked Cosby to reveal the name of the medication he’d given to Andrea.

“I’d never done that before,” Gianna Constand said about recording someone.

Incidentally, Canadian law permits the interception of a private communication where only one party consents, unlike in the U.S., where two-party consent is required.

During the conversation, Cosby inquired about Andrea’s career goals and offered to pay for Andrea’s graduate schooling, according to testimony, “as long as she maintains a 3.0 average, she’ll be fine.”
Bill Cosby Leaves Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Later, during Cosby’s March 2006 deposition in a civil lawsuit brought against him by Andrea Constand, Cosby allegedly admitted that he feared Constand’s mother recorded him, according to court papers and testimony.

That recording could be the first and only time that jurors hear Cosby’s voice since he is not expected to testify when the trial resumes on Monday.

Judge Steven T. O’Neill, the presiding Cosby trial judge, ruled last year that the recorded call was admissible evidence.

Stay tuned. I’ll have daily reports for Digital First Media publications. You can also find breaking Cosby news by following @MontcoCourtNews on Twitter.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Cosby Drama's Cast of Players: The Prosecutors

When prosecutors enter a Montgomery County courtroom on Monday their time in the international spotlight reaches a crescendo as the celebrity trial of Bill Cosby gets under way.

The players in the widely-followed legal drama include:

Kevin R. Steele

Steele, 50, of Lower Merion, was elected district attorney in November 2015 and was sworn-in on Jan. 4, 2016, to oversee an office that investigates or prosecutes about 9,000 cases annually. It was Steele, as first assistant district attorney, who announced the sex assault charges against Cosby on Dec. 30, 2015, before the 12-year statute of limitations to file charges expired.

Steele, a graduate of The Dickinson School of Law of the Pennsylvania State University who also received a Master of Laws Degree in Trial Advocacy from Temple University Law School, joined the district attorney’s office in 1995 after a two-year stint with the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office. In Montgomery County, Steele served as an assistant prosecutor, captain of the narcotics unit and chief of the trials division before being appointed first assistant in 2008.
Montgomery County DA Kevin R. Steele/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Steele, who has taught as an adjunct professor at Cabrini College since 2004 and is a married father of three children, prosecuted several high-profile cases, including that of Raghunandan Yandamuri, 30, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by a jury in 2014 in connection with the Oct. 22, 2012, deaths of 61-year-old Satyavathi Venna and her 10-month-old granddaughter, Saanvi.

Steele also prosecuted former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, the first Democrat and the first woman ever elected attorney general, who was convicted during an August 2016 trial of charges of perjury, obstructing administration of law, official oppression, false swearing and conspiracy.

M. Stewart Ryan

Ryan, 30, joined the district attorney’s office in 2012. Since then, he has served in all divisions, including pre-trials, juvenile, appeals and trials. As part of the trials division, he was a member of the firearms unit and the sex crimes unit before being promoted to the captain of the sex crimes unit in February 2015.
M. Stewart Ryan/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Ryan, who earned his law degree from Widener University Delaware Law School in 2012, was part of the team that prosecuted Kane and Yandamuri. Ryan also prosecuted well-known Norristown lawyer Vincent Cirillo Jr., who was convicted of raping a female client and is serving a 10- to-20-year prison term.

Kristen M. Feden

Feden, 34, joined the district attorney’s office in June 2012, after having served as the law clerk for county Judge Garrett D. Page. Since joining the office, Feden, who earned her law degree from Temple University Beasley School of Law in 2009, has served as a prosecutor on various units including most recently as a member of the sex crimes unit before her promotion in February 2017 to captain of the domestic violence unit.

Prior to law school, Feden worked as a financial analyst for Bloomberg, L.P. in New York, according to her biography.
Kristen M. Feden/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Feden was part of the team that prosecuted Yandamuri. Feden also prosecuted Charles Meredith IV, a former tennis coach at a Delaware County school who was convicted of having improper contact with a teenage girl he coached by sending her inappropriate text messages.

Cosby Drama's Cast of Players: The Defense

When Bill Cosby's defense team enters a Montgomery County courtroom on Monday, the team's time in the international spotlight reaches a crescendo as the celebrity trial gets under way.

The players in the widely-followed legal drama include:

Brian J. McMonagle

McMonagle, 58, who is leading Cosby’s defense team, began his career in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office where he was one of the youngest lawyers to prosecute high-profile homicide cases, according to a biography on the website of the law firm McMonagle, Perri, McHugh & Mischak.

According to his website, McMonagle’s clients have included “movie and television personalities, professional athletes, high ranking law enforcement officials, politicians, CEOs, physicians, clergy and attorneys.”
Brian J. McMonagle/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Locally, McMonagle, a graduate of Capital University Law School, made headlines when he represented Robert Kerns, a former chairman of the county GOP Committee, who in November 2013 was arrested and charged by county prosecutors with allegedly drugging and raping a woman after a work party.

However, in March 2014, McMonagle enlisted two experts to review the victim’s blood reports and found they had been read incorrectly by prosecutors. The reports indicated there had been no trace of drugs in the victim’s blood, whereas prosecutors initially alleged the report indicated the victim was drugged.

The district attorney’s office subsequently withdrew the charges against Kerns in April 2014 and forwarded the investigation to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General which then handled charges against Kerns.

In May 2014, the lead charges of rape and sexual assault were dismissed against Kerns, who subsequently pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor count of indecent assault. By pleading no contest, Kerns did not admit to the assault, but acknowledged that state prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him.

Angela C. Agrusa

Agrusa, who entered Cosby’s criminal defense case in October 2016, is a partner in the Law Firm of Liner, LLP, in Los Angeles. According to Agrusa’s website, “Angela tried high-stakes complex commercial, class action and civil cases on behalf of international brands, major companies and prominent individuals."

Agrusa, a graduate of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, previously represented Cosby in his civil trials.
Lawyer Angela C. Agrusa with co-counsel Brian McMonagle/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“Angela’s clients include Fortune 500, public and privately held companies, municipalities and prominent public figures in a broad range of industries, including entertainment, media, consumer products and services, advertising and hospitality,” according to her website.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Cosby Drama's Cast of Players: The Judge

Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill is presiding over the trial of entertainer Bill Cosby, who is accused of sexually assaulting a woman in his Cheltenham home after plying her with blue pills and wine more than a decade ago.
Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O;Neill/Submitted Photo

O’Neill, who is currently the administrative judge for the criminal division of the 22-member bench, was appointed to the county bench in April 2002 by then Governor Mark S. Schweiker and was sworn in on July 29, 2002, as a county judge, according to his biography. 

O’Neill was then elected to a 10-year term in 2004 and was retained for another 10-year term in 2014.

O’Neill, a 1975 graduate of Drexel University who received his law degree from Villanova University in 1978, has been assigned to the criminal division since 2007 and presently serves as its administrative judge.

Additionally, O’Neill serves as the administrative and presiding judge of the county’s drug treatment court. O’Neill launched the drug treatment court and has overseen its operation for more than 10 years.

Prior to becoming a judge, O’Neill, who is married and has three grown children, served as a county solicitor as well as a solicitor for the zoning hearing boards of Lower Merion and Upper Merion townships. Judge O’Neill also served as an assistant district attorney for Montgomery County from 1979 to 1984.

O’Neill previously presided over some high-profile local trials, including that of Raghunandan Yandamuri, 30, an Upper Merion man who was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury in October 2014 in connection with the Oct. 22, 2012, deaths of 61-year-old Satyavathi Venna and her 10-month-old granddaughter, Saanvi, during a botched kidnapping at The Marquis apartment complex in Upper Merion.

In November 2014, O’Neill formally sentenced Yandamuri to death for the murders.