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.

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