Monday, February 22, 2016

Montco Court Officials Proved Their Mettle Planning for Cosby Case - 'It was so impressive'

Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo Carl Hessler Jr.
Entertainer Bill Cosby’s next appearance in Montgomery County Court could come Tuesday, March 8 for his preliminary hearing on alleged sexual assault charges, that is, if the Pennsylvania Superior Court doesn’t stay the proceedings while it determines if it will consider Cosby’s appeal of Judge Steven T. O’Neill’s Feb. 3 rulings in the case.

County court officials are waiting anxiously for word from the state court.

But I have no doubt, after witnessing firsthand how county officials prepared for Cosby’s initial hearing, that the court system in Montgomery County is well-prepared for every Cosby appearance that comes in the future.

Kudos to county court, judicial, sheriff’s and security officials for successfully handling the two-day criminal court hearing for Cosby on Feb. 2 and 3. I am sure it wasn’t easy, but officials succeeded in maintaining decorum inside and outside the courtroom and in balancing their needs to keep Cosby safe during his entrance and exit from the courthouse and the needs of the media covering the event.

Bill Cosby/Courtesy Montco DA's Office
It was the highest profile case to ever play out at the courthouse and special attention was given to all aspects.

“I think it went extremely well. I was very pleased with how everything worked out. A whole lot of planning went into this, cooperation at every level,” county Court Administrator Michael R. Kehs said recently as he reflected on the enormous task of accommodating such a high-profile case.

Court officials worked early on with members of the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, which made sure that members of the media, more than 100, had credentials and courtroom passes to get into the main courtroom and a second courtroom that provided a video feed of the proceedings. Members of the local media regime, those reporters who are at the courthouse on a daily basis, had front row seats reserved for them, for which we were grateful.

Parking passes also were distributed and special parking was arranged for the news vans and satellite trucks that crammed onto Swede Street.

Only a few pool photographers were permitted inside the courthouse and outside the main courtroom. Spectators were not permitted to take photos in the immediate area of the courtroom. There was a designated area cleared of snow set up outside the courthouse so professional photographers and videographers could record Cosby’s arrival and exit from the courthouse.

In a special decorum order issued days in advance of the proceedings, judicial officials laid down the rules, there would be no live transmissions, such as tweeting and emailing, from the courtroom and reporters could not leave the courtroom until a break was called.
Courtroom A

Everything appeared to run smoothly and I didn’t hear any complaints from members of the local or national media. I think the general philosophy was that if officials gave us what we needed to do our jobs as reporters then we’d work with officials in any way we could to keep the order they craved.

“I think the powers-that-be did an amazing job. It was so impressive," gushed Monica Pokorny, court clerk for Judge Todd Eisenberg. “There was a lot going on at the courthouse that day and they did wonderful. It was so calm.”
There was no chaos, said Pokorny, a longtime courthouse employee since 2001, who took time to observe the scene as an intrigued citizen while she was on her lunch break.

“I couldn’t get to see what I wanted to see because they were so good,” laughed Pokorny, who admits candidly she would have loved to have snapped a photo of Cosby while she was on her lunch break and Cosby was leaving court. “But the deputies had a presence about them that you knew you weren’t allowed to play around. The familiarity you have with the deputies, that was all put aside.

Court Clerk Monica Pokorny/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
“I wanted to take pictures and the deputy said very nicely, ‘There’s no cameras’ and I didn’t ask questions, and I followed the rules. I was so impressed with everyone that day,” said Pokorny, turning  serious.

Pokorny, like many courthouse workers, did manage to catch a glimpse of Cosby as he came to court.
“It was really neat to see someone in person and how just normal they looked, just like a regular person,” said Pokorny.

For a brief period of time, the courthouse became ground zero for a national news event and the satellite trucks that lined Swede Street were proof of that.

“If you were in other sections of the courthouse you wouldn’t have even known what was going on unless you happened to be looking up and down Swede Street. Then you knew something was going on,” Kehs smiled.

“There was an air of excitement about it, that’s for sure. It was a big deal and everybody knew it was a big deal. The amount of press and the size of the trucks, it was amazing. I thought the local news stations with their little vans would be jealous of the big satellite trucks,” Pokorny laughed.

But 'Mr. Everybody’s Business' didn’t see any bumper stickers on small news vans that stated, “My other vehicle is a satellite truck.”
News vans crammed every inch of Swede Street/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Courthouse workers I talked to said members of the media didn’t interfere with their work and they added everyone from the media was respectful and kind.

Special thanks to Jeanne Ottinger, the law librarian, who graciously agreed to keep the courthouse law library open until 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 2 to accommodate any reporters who needed space to work in a quiet atmosphere and to have access to wi-fi and electrical outlets while they filed their stories.

The media waits for Cosby to arrive/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
“We were delighted how cooperative the press was. You guys were phenomenal,” Kehs told me.
“I didn’t want Norristown, the courthouse or press to be the story. I didn’t want court administration or dealings or problems with the press to be the story. I wanted the story to be the Cosby matter in the courtroom, that’s it. I do believe we were successful in that,” Kehs added.

The Cosby hearing was so well-planned that it didn’t interfere with other courthouse business. In the general vicinity of the Cosby hearing other judges in other courtrooms presided over a family matter, a civil medical malpractice jury trial and a sentencing hearing in a homicide by vehicle case. Another 250 criminal defendants faced arraignments and the sheriff’s department conducted a deadbeat parent roundup and those defendants were brought before a judge as the Cosby hearing played out.

“And none of it was disrupted by the Cosby matter. It was business as usual. That to me was the real indicator of our success, that we were able to continue to operate and function as a court and manage Cosby at the same time,” Kehs said.

Montgomery County court officials succeeded in what was a difficult situation.

A relative newcomer to a high-profile, celebrity trial, the local court system proved its mettle those two days in February.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Cosby Saga - Episode One

It was the biggest show in town last week when entertainer Bill Cosby came to the Montgomery County Courthouse for his first hearing on alleged sexual assault charges – his request to dismiss the case.
Montgomery County Courthouse/photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

It was episode one in what is likely to be a lengthy, hard-fought legal drama.

“I think the only thing we can agree on is there is no case quite like this. It’s an extraordinary case,” Christopher Tayback, one of Cosby’s lawyers said during the hearing.

Mr. Everybody's Business had a front row seat. Here's some of the things you didn't see in print.

The first act unfolded as Cosby’s defense team, led by Brian J. McMonagle, called former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. as its star witness, a formidable, locally familiar crime fighter and political leader known for his unflinching confidence. Dressed in a pinstriped suit, Castor, squeezing his 6-foot 3-inch frame into the witness box, claimed he entered into a binding declaration with Cosby’s lawyers in 2005 that Cosby would never be charged with sexually assaulting a woman in his Cheltenham home.

What was expected to be a showdown between onetime political rivals Castor and current District Attorney Kevin R. Steele never materialized, as co-prosecutor Stewart Ryan was assigned to cross-exam Castor. Ryan, with only three years under his belt in the office, certainly proved his mettle in what appeared at times as a battle of wits between two legal eagles, one seasoned and the other a rising star.

Bruce L. Castor Jr./Photo courtesy of Castor
The back and forth was riveting to watch.

For example, at one point, Ryan recited a quote attributed to Castor in a published news article.

Ryan: "And it says, 'At a news conference Wednesday, Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor said Cosby is fully cooperating.''

Castor (quickly correcting Ryan): "It actually says 'Bruce L. Castor Jr.'”

Ryan (not missing a beat): "I apologize to you and your father.”
Castor: "I don't think he's going to hear this."

A short time later Castor, while responding to a question put to him by Ryan, said, “Sir, your name is Mr. Riley?”
“No, it’s Mr. Ryan,” Ryan corrected Castor.

At times the "Cosby Show” became the “Castor Show.”

Ryan showed Castor a recent news article that quoted Castor and described him as “chuckling nervously.”
“I can't recall ever chuckling nervously in my life,” Castor quipped.

During an intense cross-examination by Ryan, Castor was pummeled with questions about a February 2005 press release he issued that announced his decision not to charge Cosby.

Castor: "I made it absolute in the press release."
Ryan: "Please, tell me in the press release where you made it absolute."
Castor (appearing agitated): "I will if you quiet down and let me look at it."

There were other humorous moments.

McMonagle’s questioning of Castor began with his asking the former district attorney about his experience and the awards he’d received as a prosecutor from victim’s groups, etc.

“Your honor, there would be so many, I don’t think I’d be able to do it without seeing my CV (curriculum vitae),” Castor said, eliciting snickers from some of the estimated 200 spectators who were in the courtroom.

On a large screen in the courtroom, McMonagle projected a biography entitled “Bruce’s Story,” which outlined Castor’s career. McMonagle then asked Castor how significant were the murder convictions he had obtained during his years as a prosecutor.
“Well, they certainly were significant to the people who were dead,” Castor quipped, again eliciting some laughter from spectators.
Assistant District Attorney Stewart Ryan/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Ryan cross-examined Castor about statements he gave to the news media regarding the Cosby case since 2005. Ryan implied Castor made inconsistent statements over the years and Castor suggested he had been misquoted many times in the press or had never seen the published reports.

During one exchange, Ryan questioned Castor about an article, which, according to testimony I authored, entitled, “Cosby meets with authorities over sex assault allegations,” which was published in The Mercury on Jan. 27, 2005.

Ryan: “Now do you see at the bottom of this document there appears to be a web address? Is that right?”
Castor: “It does appear to be a web address. We started with pencils and typewriters, so I’m not that savvy.”
Ryan: “I’ll try not to push your knowledge on technology, but this web address is Are you familiar with that web address?”
Castor: “Yeah.”
Ryan: “And that’s for the Pottstown Mercury newspaper, correct?”
Castor: “Yes. And Carl Hessler is still here today. I think I saw him.”
Ryan (As he pointed in my direction): “He’s right there in the front row.”
Castor: “He looks a little older.” (Eliciting laughter from spectators)
Ryan: “You certainly wouldn’t catch me saying that.” (Eliciting more laughter)

"Older?" If there was ever a time I felt like standing up in a courtroom and shouting, “Objection,” it was at that time. 

All kidding aside, aren't we all a little older than in 2005? One of my colleagues leaned over to me and stated, “You should tell him (Castor) he’s no spring chicken either.”

Ryan then directed Castor to the specific quote attributed to Castor in The Mercury article.

Ryan: “Do you recall making that statement?”
Castor: “No.”
Ryan: “Would you have any reason to believe that Mr. Hessler, there in the front row, would have misquoted you about that?”
Castor: “He usually gets it right.”
Ryan: “I think so too.”

A short time later the exchange went like this:

Castor: "I'm much more likely to recall interviews from the local press corps than national or international press corps because I know the reporters."
Ryan: "Well, you failed to remember that one from Carl Hessler earlier. We can agree about that, right?"
Castor: "I said I was much more likely. And I also said that he's likely to get it right."

“Whew,” I thought to myself after that exchange, while at the same time wanting to crawl under the courtroom bench on which I was seated.

Ryan then asked Castor about an article that appeared in the Washington Post.

Ryan: "Are you familiar with the Washington Post?"
Castor: "No."
Ryan: "You're not familiar with the Washington Post?"
Castor: "Well, if you're asking me if I ever read the Washington Post, the answer is No. If you're asking if I ever heard of it, Yeah."

Another reporter from out of town approached me later and said, “Oh, that’s you they were talking about? I guess that’s the only paper he reads.”

Castor claimed his non-prosecution promise was made to create an atmosphere that would induce Cosby to testify in the alleged victim’s civil litigation against Cosby and allow the woman to prevail civilly and “make a lot of money.”
“Let’s be clear, Mr. McMonagle, I’m not on your team here. I want them to win," Castor flatly told McMonagle, surprising every one in the courtroom.
William H. Cosby Jr./Courtesy Montco DA's Office

Finally, I don’t know if it was a slip of the tongue or on purpose, but Dolores Troiani, the civil lawyer representing Cosby’s alleged victim, used the name of Cosby’s alter ego, his character from "The Cosby Show," when she testified she wasn’t confident in Castor’s ability to handle the Cosby prosecution in 2005 and downplayed Castor’s excuses for not prosecuting Cosby.

“We felt he was not going to alienate those fans of Dr. Huxtable,” said Troiani.

Stay tuned, Episode Two of the Cosby Saga is right around the corner.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Montco Prepares for Cosby Hearing

Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Courthouse employees were buzzing today about entertainer Bill Cosby’s scheduled appearance here tomorrow for a hearing on his request to dismiss alleged sex assault charges lodged against him Dec. 30. Parking restrictions were set to go into effect outside the courthouse from 6 p.m. tonight until 4 p.m. Feb. 2 to make way for satellite trucks, from various new organizations, expected to converge on the courthouse overnight.

Cosby’s hearing gets underway at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow. Security will be tight and media restrictions are in place.

During what is expected to be a moment of high courtroom drama, newly-elected Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, who on Dec. 30 charged Cosby with the alleged 2004 sexual assault of a woman at his Cheltenham home, will have to fight a defense claim that former District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. entered into a valid “non-prosecution” agreement with Cosby and his then lawyer in 2005.
Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Judge Steven T. O’Neill must decide if the so-called non-prosecution agreement is valid and rule on a request by Cosby’s defense team to dismiss charges of aggravated indecent assault against Cosby.

O’Neill’s ruling will determine if the prosecution moves forward and if Cosby, 78, eventually has a preliminary hearing on the charges.

“The question is going to be whether or not that’s a legally binding contract between lawyers, which it may be, but then the next question is going to be whether or not that legally binding contract continues forward ad infinitum for the rest of our lives when a new regime comes in,” Cary B. McClain, a Lower Merion defense lawyer who is unconnected to the Cosby case, summed up the dilemma as a legal observer.
Defense lawyer Cary B. McClain/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“Will a judge find that that agreement between Bruce Castor and Bruce Castor’s office is binding against Kevin Steele and Kevin Steele’s office? That’s the big question,” McClain added.

The legal duel, which is expected to attract worldwide media attention by celebrity watchers, pits against each other, in a very public forum, two political rivals who battled for the district attorney’s post during a sometimes heated campaign back in November. Castor, a 55-year-old Lower Salford Republican who served as district attorney from 2000 to 2008, lost his bid to regain the seat from Steele, a 48-year-old Lower Merion Democrat, in November’s contest.

District Attorney Kevin R. Steele/Submitted Photo

During the campaign, Steele, who was then first assistant district attorney, in a 30-second television ad,  attacked Castor for not charging Cosby in 2005 when former Temple University athletic department employee Andrea Constand first claimed Cosby sexually assaulted her at his Cheltenham home.

Castor has claimed there wasn’t enough “reliable and admissible” evidence to prosecute Cosby in 2005.

During an interview last November, after the election, Castor called Steele’s campaign tactics “appalling.”

“I believe the long term consequences of the behavior in this case will be severe and will have a dramatic and negative impact on the office’s ability to prosecute Cosby,” Castor said during a candid interview one day after losing the Nov. 3 election.

“Should they actually go ahead and arrest Cosby, I’d be very surprised if there weren’t a very contentious series of motions to disqualify the district attorney’s office by virtue of the fact that the new boss (Steele) has already told the public, in his opinion, that Cosby is guilty,” Castor said at that time. “I think that that will cause a monumental problem if in fact the county decides to go ahead against Cosby.
Bruce L. Castor Jr./submitted photo

“And they can’t very well refer the case to the attorney general since they’re prosecuting the attorney general,” Castor added in November, referring to the pending prosecution of Kathleen Kane for alleged perjury. “So since there’s no other option in Pennsylvania for prosecution, aside from the D.A. and the attorney general because we have no special prosecutor statute, I think a whole series of issues are injected into the case.”

Cosby’s lawyers have already asked a judge to disqualify Steele’s office from prosecuting Cosby.

All eyes will be on Castor if he indeed is called to testify at Cosby's hearing Tuesday.

Mr. Everybody’s Business and @MontcoCourtNews will be watching every move.

A Teachable Moment - Wasted

It was a teachable moment.
Montgomery County Courthouse

 Unfortunately, it was lost on the teens and twenty-somethings who packed the Montgomery County Courtroom last week of a 19-year-old Hatfield Township man who was acquitted of raping a North Penn High School student during a March 2015 teen drinking party at a home in Towamencin.

I can understand, during a moment of raw emotion, the jubilation - hugs and tears - that overflowed in the courtroom from the young man’s family and friends when the “not guilty” verdicts were announced by jurors at the trial at which the young man testified the sexual contact was consensual.

However, I cannot comprehend the actions of a few of the young man’s friends outside the courtroom, in the wake of the verdict.

As county Assistant District Attorney Kelly Lloyd left the courtroom, several young males, friends of the man who was acquitted, boldly uttered, "Prosecutors are sick" and "Walk of shame," just loud enough so Lloyd could hear it. Lloyd, with grace and composure, continued on her way as the young men sneered at her.

What was shameful was the conduct of the young men.  It was a shameful display. “Grow up,” I was prompted to tweet about the conduct on Twitter at that moment.

A Twitter follower responded: “Disgusting and disrespectful.”

Their disrespect only got worse once they got outside the courthouse. There, with the courthouse entrance as a backdrop, about eight young men and women posed for a photo in which they raised their arms and flashed their middle fingers, smiling proudly about their obscene gestures. That photo subsequently was posted to a social media site.


It’s okay to be pleased about a verdict but to show disrespect to others over the outcome of a verdict was just another example of the lack of civility that is all too common in society today.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, a teachable moment is “an event or experience that presents a good opportunity for learning something about a particular aspect of life.”

During the trial, testimony revealed friends of the alleged victim recorded cell phone videos of the young woman in an alleged drunken state, presumably to post on social media sites as a joke.

So, this is how they use social media today?

Testimony during the trial revealed that many at the party had been drinking heavily. Instead of learning valuable lessons from a very unpleasant trial – lessons about the dangers of excessive drinking and about how not to put oneself in situations that can have potentially life-altering consequences – some of the young trial spectators, with ugly bravado, chose to lash out at prosecutors with disrespectful comments.

A teachable moment wasted, for sure.