Thursday, November 16, 2017

Judge O'Neill Appointed to New Post Overseeing Specialty Courts

The Montgomery County judge who oversees Drug Treatment Court has been appointed to fill a newly-created administrative post on the 23-member bench.
Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Submitted Photo

Judge Steven T. O’Neill was appointed as the administrative judge of treatment courts, an announcement made this week when President Judge Thomas M. DelRicci unveiled judicial assignments for the period Jan. 1, 2018, through Dec. 31, 2019.

“Judge O’Neill will supervise all of our specialty courts,” DelRicci said. “That’s a brand new administrative position.”

Those specialty courts include Drug Treatment Court, Behavioral Health Court and Veterans’ Treatment Court.
President Judge Thomas M. DelRicci/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“That work that we’re doing has just gotten too large and it’s very complex because you’re dealing with not only the Department of Probation and Parole and the service agencies that assist us in providing for the needs of those people in those programs, but there’s also a lot of grant applications and things like that that have to be taken care of,” DelRicci explained.


“It’s a huge job and to throw that under the role of the administrative judge of the Criminal Division means that the person just doesn’t have time to do both, so I split that up,” added DelRicci, explaining the rationale behind the creation of the new administrative post.

O’Neill previously was the administrative judge for the Criminal Division. But Judge Thomas C. Branca will officially move into that position come January.

O’Neill 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.
Judge O'Neill/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.



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. Additionally, O’Neill launched the drug treatment court and has overseen its operation for 11 years.





DelRicci, who was installed as president judge in January and who was retained during the Nov. 7 election for another 10-year term on the bench, announced other judicial assignments this week.

Judge Carolyn T. Carluccio was appointed to be the new administrative judge for the Family Court Division.

Judge Lois E. Murphy will remain as the administrative judge of the Orphans’ Court Division while Judge Thomas P. Rogers will remain the administrative judge of the Civil Court Division, which he has helmed for the last year. Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy will remain administrative judge of the Juvenile Court Division, according to DelRicci.


Judge Cheryl L. Austin will helm Veterans’ Treatment Court, which previously was overseen by Judge Todd D. Eisenberg. Established in April 2011, the Veterans’ Treatment Court addresses the needs of veterans cycling through the court and prison system.


Judge Gary S. Silow will continue to oversee Behavioral Health Court, which was established in 2009 and addresses the needs of people with serious mental health problems who are progressing through the court and prison systems.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A FIRST IN MONTCO: Unique Defense Strategy Waged at Drug Smuggling Trial

Last week, a Norristown businessman offered a defense strategy never before waged in Montgomery County to charges he smuggled heroin for a drug trafficking organization, claiming he did so under duress by a Mexican drug cartel that threatened his relatives.

“They told me I had to work with them. They were going to kill my brothers in Mexico,” David Pacheco testified in county court, referring to men who visited his Norristown towing business in early 2015 and who he believed were representatives of the violent Mexican drug cartel known as New Generation Cartel Jalisco.
David Pacheco/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.


Courthouse insiders and seasoned defense lawyers told me they believed it was the first time such a defense was waged in a county courtroom. They were watching the trial closely.

Well-known defense lawyer John I. McMahon Jr. argued to jurors during his opening statement that prosecutors had to prove that Pacheco, 45, was not acting under duress by the Mexican drug cartel and its associates at the time he smuggled the drugs.

McMahon claimed duress is an “absolute defense” to criminal charges and arises under circumstances when, although an individual committed the acts that would constitute a crime, that he only did so based on the threat of violence to him or others. McMahon argued Pacheco was under extreme duress and was not guilty of the drug-related offenses with which he was charged.

While District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and co-prosecutor Robert Kolansky argued Pacheco willingly smuggled heroin inside retrofitted car batteries from Atlanta to New York City, via Montgomery County, out of greed to make money with the “poison he was peddling,” McMahon argued Pacheco was a “mule” threatened and intimidated by the cartel to cooperate.
Montgomery County DA Kevin R. Steele/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

McMahon, a prosecutor turned defense lawyer who has a reputation for being a zealous advocate for his clients, relied on a scholarly expert on Mexican cartels to argue the cartels use extortion, the threat of kidnapping family and relatives and even murder to get otherwise law-abiding Mexican immigrants to assist them.

John I. McMahon Jr./Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Pacheco came to the U.S. 18 years ago, has no criminal record and operated a successful towing business, D&J Towing in Norristown, testimony revealed.

McMahon argued Pacheco initially rebuffed the requests of cartel associates who visited him but caved in when cartel members revealed they had photos of his relatives and knew where they lived.

In the end, the jury apparently did not buy the duress claim as an excuse for the conduct, convicting Pacheco of nine counts of possession with intent to deliver heroin.



But the trial offered spectators an education about Mexican drug cartels and a view of a defense strategy never before seen at a county trial.

IN A RELATED MATTER 

When it came time for the defense expert on Mexican cartels to testify via the Internet from California, his image displayed on a large television monitor for jurors, there was a glitch when officials couldn’t get the sound to work properly.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the part you don’t see on TV,” Judge Garrett D. Page addressed jurors, eliciting laughter from the panel, referring to the legal dramas so popular on television. “Technology isn’t perfect. Thank you for your patience.”

Judge Garrett D. Page/ Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.



After several minutes, officials worked out the technological problems and the trial resumed.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Montco Prosecutor Kristen Feden Moving On

Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden, who is part of the team that is prosecuting entertainer Bill Cosby on sex assault charges, is leaving the district attorney’s office effective August 15 for a new job.
Montco Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Feden, who since February has been the captain of the district attorney’s domestic violence unit, is joining the Philadelphia-based law firm of Stradley Ronon as an associate and will primarily handle civil litigation.

However, District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said despite Feden’s departure she will be designated as a special prosecutor when Cosby faces his retrial in county court. That retrial is currently slated to begin Nov. 6.

Montco D.A. Kevin R. Steele/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
“Kristen has been an outstanding prosecutor. She is always prepared, terrific in her approach and has excellent courtroom presence. We are sad to lose one of the best young attorneys we have. We will miss her personally and professionally…,” Steele said in a news release, adding he is pleased Stradley Ronon will permit Feden to continue with the Cosby prosecution.

William R. Sasso, chairman of Stradley Ronon’s management committee and board of directors, also praised Feden saying she is “an exceptional courtroom attorney and will be an asset to our strong litigation team.”

Michael D. O’Mara, chair of Stradley Ronon’s litigation department, characterized Feden as “a superstar in any setting,” whether as a criminal prosecutor or in private practice.

Around the courthouse, Feden is known for being tough in court and yet many consider her to be one of the most likable prosecutors to grace the halls of the courthouse. She greets everyone with a smile and always seems to have a kind word. Her laugh is infectious.

In May 2016, Feden, who has been a prosecutor since 2012, was honored in the Philadelphia Business Journal’s special edition entitled, “40 Under 40 Living The Dream,” which profiled Philadelphia area movers and shakers under 40 who are dedicated to their careers and communities.

At the time, Feden ecstatically told me it was one of the highest honors she received. The popular business publication featured Feden, of Abington, on its cover and a profile of Feden was included in the inside pages.
Kristen Feden Displays Honor in 2016/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“I was extremely excited. It was such a great honor because being recognized as a public servant by a business journal shows that even the business world recognizes, respects and honors public servants, including prosecutors, whose sole job is to keep the community safe,” Feden, who was a law clerk for Judge Garrett D. Page before being hired as a prosecutor, told me last year.

Feden, a 2009 graduate of Temple University Beasley School of Law, has prosecuted many sex crime cases.

Last year she was assigned to assist Steele in the prosecution of Cosby, who is accused of sexually assaulting a woman at his Cheltenham home in 2004. It’s the highest profile case to ever hit the local courthouse.

Feden drew nationwide attention when she presented the opening statement to jurors during the Cosby trial and when she handled the direct examination of Cosby's accuser, the star prosecution witness.

In June, a judge declared a mistrial when a jury could not reach a verdict at Cosby’s trial. The case is now scheduled for a retrial before Judge Steven T. O’Neill.

You can bet that all eyes will continue to be on Feden as the Cosby case winds its way through the court system again.

Feden, who is married to Nicholas Feden and is the mother of two young boys, Nicholas Jr. and Ethan, also once worked as a financial analyst for Bloomberg, L.P. in New York.

So if you see Feden in the courthouse hallways congratulate her on her new job as she advances her career.


Mr. Everybody’s Business also says, congratulations, Kristen!

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:

THE PROSECUTION
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:

THE DEFENSE
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.

Kudos to County Workers Making Courthouse Shine During High-Profile Cosby Trial

The Montgomery County Courthouse is about to be the focus of worldwide attention as the sexual assault trial of actor and comedian Bill Cosby gets under way on Monday.


Reporters from media outlets around the globe are beginning to descend upon the area and county officials have made sure the courthouse looks its best while the highest-profile criminal trial to ever take place in these halls of justice unfolds.




Last week, county public property employees were putting fresh coats of paint on jury rooms, mowing lawns and cleaning courtrooms, all in preparation for the worldwide attention. Kudos to those county employees who I observed going the extra mile to make sure the courthouse facility shines. If a bonus is out of the question, then at the very least they deserve some praise from their bosses and county leaders.
Cosby Trial Will Unfold in Courtroom A/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

During a hearing last week, Judge Steven T. O’Neill, who will preside over the Cosby trial, said it was “a case of extraordinary pretrial publicity.” I think the amount of pretrial publicity is about to be overshadowed by the amount of publicity the trial is going to attract during the next two weeks.

This amount of attention could be a boon for local restaurants and hotels. Who is going to provide coffee, eats and beds for all those journalists?

While the trial will be taking place inside, expect a lot of things to be going on outside the courthouse too. A podium is scheduled to be set up in a courtyard in the event the lawyers in the case speak during breaks or at the end of the day’s testimony.
Montco Sheriff's Deputies Install Crowd Control Fences/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Additionally, an expert from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) will be on site beginning Monday.



According to officials, Kristen Houser, NSVRC chief public affairs officer, will be available to provide an expert perspective and important context on sexual violence, including victim behavior and trauma, offender dynamics, and the use of drugs and alcohol to perpetrate sexual violence, to members of the media covering the trial.

In light of potential rainy weather this week, county officials have given the go-ahead to media outlets to erect canopies during the Cosby trial. However, those canopies cannot be placed on the grassy areas outside the courthouse but can be placed directly on the concrete, either near the courtyard area or on top of the upper plaza area near the Swede Street entrance.

Officials said media canopies should also be placed so as not to interfere with any pedestrian traffic.  County officials advised media outlets to bring some sort of weight or anchor to secure the canopy on the concrete.
Bill Cosby Leaves Court/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
From crowds to canopies, it should be an interesting few weeks here at the courthouse.

William Henry Cosby Jr., as his name appears on charging documents,  faces three counts of aggravated indecent assault in connection with allegations he had 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.

Stay tuned. Cosby’s trial gets under way on Monday morning.


Once the trial begins, I’ll have daily reports for Digital First Media publications. You can also find breaking Cosby news by following @MontcoCourtNews on Twitter.

Who Will Show Up to Watch Cosby's Legal Drama?

All eyes, from legal experts and celebrity-watchers to local residents just seeking to satisfy their curiosity, will be on actor Bill Cosby, who turns 80 in July, and former Temple University athletic department employee Andrea Constand, 44, this week as they come face-to-face for the first time in decades during a high-profile legal drama.
Bill Cosby at Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.


I suspect you’ll be able to hear a pin drop as Constand, now a massage therapist in Canada, walks to the witness box to confront Cosby with her allegations that he sexually assaulted her at his Cheltenham mansion after plying her with blue pills and wine in early 2004.  It will be a dramatic moment to soak in.

But there are other moments and people to watch for during this trial.

Camille Cosby
Will she or won’t she make an appearance? That is the question on the minds of many when it comes to Cosby’s wife of more than 50 years. During the 18 months of pretrial legal wrangling that ensued since Cosby’s December 2015 arrest, Camille has not appeared with her husband’s entourage at the Montgomery County courthouse. She’s been noticeably absent and the times I’ve been asked by people, “Was Camille there?” are too numerous to count. Time will tell.

If Mrs. Cosby does make an appearance, watch for the media and any Hollywood paparazzi on site to go wild.

Courtroom observers also will be looking for appearances by Cosby’s daughters, Erinn and Ensa, who have publically supported their father during recent interviews leading up to the trial.

Bruce Castor Jr.
Will the former county district attorney who chose not to charge Cosby with any crimes in 2005 make an appearance during the trial? It’s unclear if the defense team will call him as a witness.
During an intense pretrial hearing last year, defense lawyer Brian J. McMonagle argued Cosby had a so-called 2005 “non-prosecution promise” from Castor. McMonagle raised the alleged 2005 Castor promise to try to have the charges dismissed against Cosby, but Judge Steven T. O’Neill rejected that argument and moved the case forward.
Bruce L. Castor Jr./Submitted Photo

Castor, district attorney from 2000 to 2008, previously claimed there wasn’t enough “reliable and admissible” evidence to criminally charge Cosby in 2005.
Cosby’s lawyers contended the 2005 non-prosecution promise was made for the express purpose of inducing Cosby to testify in Constand’s civil litigation against him, removing from him the ability to claim his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, “thus forcing him to sit for a deposition under oath in a civil case” in 2005 and 2006.

Defense lawyers claimed District Attorney Kevin R. Steele “repudiated the agreement” with Castor and based the criminal charges lodged against Cosby on testimony Cosby gave during the deposition connected to the civil suit. Steele argued there was no non-prosecution promise.
Cosby was deposed in connection with the lawsuit over four days in September 2005 and March 2006. The suit ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount on July 13, 2006.

Current prosecutors reopened the criminal investigation in July 2015 after portions of Cosby’s deposition connected to the civil suit were unsealed by a federal judge and his alleged damaging testimony, that he previously gave quaaludes to women with whom he wanted to have sex, was exposed.
Castor has been known to show up at some other high-profile trials. Last year, he made a surprise appearance at the obstruction trial of former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Will he show up at Cosby’s trial? I’ll let you know if there’s a sighting.

ALLEGED ‘PRIOR VICTIM NUMBER SIX’
In February, O’Neill ruled prosecutors can present the testimony of “prior alleged victim six” at Cosby’s trial. Steele had asked the judge to allow a total of 13 other women who accused Cosby of uncharged sexual misconduct to testify at the trial, but O’Neill ruled 12 of the women cannot testify.
Bill Cosby 2015 Arrest Photo/Courtesy Montco DA's Office

O’Neill’s ruling was considered one of the major pretrial legal decisions in the Cosby case. Legal insiders believed the key to the prosecution’s case against Cosby was the admissibility of evidence involving alleged accusers who came forward after Constand’s allegations came to light in 2005.

“Victim six,” the one O’Neill will allow to testify, is identified in court papers as a 29-year-old woman who met Cosby around 1990 and was an assistant to Cosby’s personal appearance agent at the time. 

The woman claimed Cosby sexually assaulted her during a lunchtime meeting in 1996 at the actor’s bungalow at the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles after offering her some red wine and a white pill to relax, according to court papers. The woman claimed she became incapacitated and was unable to consent to or to resist Cosby’s unwanted sexual advances, prosecutors alleged.

GLORIA ALLRED
The well-known celebrity lawyer from Los Angeles has been present at numerous Cosby pretrial hearings and she represents many of the 13 other alleged Cosby accusers that prosecutors sought to have included at the trial.
Gloria Allred/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
McMonagle and co-defense lawyer Angela C. Agrusa previously argued many of the women represented by Allred launched media campaigns, making their claims suspect.

Allred has often stepped to a podium outside the courthouse to address the press after the pretrial hearings. Everyone will be watching to see if Allred is accompanied to court by any of her clients.

Stay tuned. Cosby’s trial gets under way on Monday morning.


Once the trial begins, I’ll have daily reports for Digital First Media publications. You can also find breaking Cosby news by following @MontcoCourtNews on Twitter.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Bill Cosby's Defense Team Grows As Trial Nears

Just days before his sexual assault trial begins in Montgomery County, entertainer Bill Cosby has added two more California lawyers to assist his defense team.

Lead local lawyer Brian J. McMonagle filed petitions in county court on Friday asking a judge to allow lawyers Delilah G. Vinzon and Ryan D. Austin, each of Los Angeles, to be admitted  “for the limited purpose of assisting in the representation” of Cosby.  

Vinzon is a partner in the Law Firm of Liner, LLP, in Los Angeles, while Austin is an associate in the firm, according to court documents.

Under Pennsylvania Bar Admission Rules, lawyers or advocates who are qualified to practice in the courts of another state may be “specially admitted to the Bar of this Commonwealth for purposes limited to a particular matter,” according to court documents filed by McMonagle.

Defense Lawyer Brian J. McMonagle/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
“Here there is no good cause for denial of the special admission of (Vinzon and Austin) to the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” McMonagle wrote.

Judge Steven T. O’Neill, who is presiding over the trial, granted McMonagle’s requests on Friday.

Vinzon, who was admitted to the California Bar in 2002, and Austin, who was admitted to the California Bar in 2012, are associated with the same law firm in which lawyer Angela C. Agrusa is a partner. Agrusa joined the Cosby defense team as co-counsel with McMonagle last October.

Even though the judge granted the special admissions, “Mr. McMonagle remains the attorney of record in this case…,” court papers spell out.

Bill Cosby Leaves MontcoPa Court/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Cosby’s trial gets under way on Monday morning.

William Henry Cosby Jr., as his name appears on charging documents,  faces three counts of aggravated indecent assault in connection with allegations he had inappropriate sexual contact with Andrea Constand, a former Temple University athletic department employee, at his home along New Second Street in Cheltenham after plying her with blue pills and wine sometime between mid-January and mid-February 2004.

The charges were lodged against Cosby on Dec. 30, 2015, before the 12-year statute of limitations to file charges expired.

If convicted of the charges at trial, Cosby, an entertainment icon who remains free on 10 percent of $1 million bail, faces a possible maximum sentence of 15 to 30 years in prison.

Once the trial begins, I’ll have daily reports for Digital First Media publications. You can also find breaking Cosby news by following @MontcoCourtNews on Twitter.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

As Cosby Jury Selection Nears Montco Judge Issues Warning Against Jury Tampering

With Jury selection about to begin for the June 5 sexual assault trial of entertainer Bill Cosby, Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill gave one last stern-sounding warning to members of the media and the general public, focusing on the security of the jury panel.
Montco Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Submitted Photo

“Reporters and members of the general public are reminded that any attempt by anyone, without leave of Court, to communicate with a member of the jury panel respecting the case, until the conclusion of the case, may be punished as a criminal contempt of court,” O’Neill wrote in a court order issued on Friday.

Jury selection begins Monday at the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

The judge added that during individual questioning of jurors, “the room may be cleared of reporters and members of the general public if the juror expresses a desire to answer a sensitive question in private.”

Indeed, the Cosby jury, a panel of 12 and six alternate jurors, likely will be subject to some of the tightest security that a jury has ever faced in Montgomery County. It is the most high-profile criminal trial to ever play out at the county courthouse in Norristown.

“Overall, our real focus is security, securing those jurors,” county Sheriff Sean P. Kilkenny told me during a recent interview. “We want to make it as safe and comfortable for the jurors. They are coming from Allegheny County, sacrificing everything being away from their families, and we want to make it as safe and comfortable for them as we can.”
Montco Sheriff Sean Kilkenny/Submitted Photo

 Judge O’Neill, prosecutors and Cosby’s team of defense lawyers will be at the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh on Monday to begin selecting jurors. 

The selection process was moved after defense lawyers argued that closer to home prospective jurors had been subjected to pervasive media coverage that made it impossible to select a fair jury in Montgomery County.

Once the jurors are selected, they will be transported to Montgomery County and sequestered at an area hotel for the duration of the trial, which is expected to last at least two weeks.

Cosby, 79, faces three counts of aggravated indecent assault in connection with allegations he had 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.


Once the trial begins, I’ll have daily reports for Digital First Media publications. You can also find breaking Cosby news by following @MontcoCourtNews on Twitter.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Internet All Atwitter About Cosby and Race. But It Was Old News

The Internet was all atwitter this morning with blaring headlines that entertainer Bill Cosby suggested in an interview with a radio show host that racism may be playing a part in his sexual assault trial that is about to get under way.

My first reaction. I had to laugh at the barrage of news reports about the subject. Old news, I thought, as defense suggestions of racism were first reported last year.

In fact, The Mercury, The Reporter and the Times Herald were among the first publications to report last October that Cosby’s lawyers claimed they cannot ignore “the unfortunate role that racial bias still plays in our criminal justice system.” The claims were made in court documents I obtained.
Bill Cosby/Photo Courtesy Montco DA


“In a better world, racial bias would be a specter of the past, or, better yet, nonexistent,” lawyers Brian J. McMonagle and Angela C. Agrusa wrote in court papers in which they claimed Cosby is a victim of racial bias, an unfair media blitz and a prosecutors’ decade-old delay in bringing sexual assault charges against him.

The racial bias, Cosby’s lawyers suggested, was evident in the request by Montgomery County prosecutors to allow 13 additional women to testify at Cosby’s trial to bolster their contention that Cosby sexually assaulted Andrea Constand, a former Temple University athletic department employee, at his Cheltenham home in 2004. The 13 women alleged to also have been the victims of Cosby’s inappropriate conduct between 1960 and 1990 and District Attorney Kevin R. Steele argued their testimony is relevant at trial to show Cosby’s behaviors “took on a form of a common plan, scheme or design.”

“Only one of those women self-identifies as African-American,” McMonagle and Agrusa claimed. “The commonwealth’s choice preys upon subconscious (or perhaps conscious) beliefs that a white woman is less likely to consent to sex with a black man, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the time period the commonwealth chose to focus on.

Defense lawyer Brian J. McMonagle/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr,.
“This turns the presumption of innocence that Mr. Cosby is entitled to into a presumption of guilt, and runs counter to the basic principles upon which the United States was founded,” the lawyers added.

McMonagle argued some of the 13 women have been paraded in front of the media by high-profile, civil rights lawyers like Gloria Allred, who represents some of the women.

“And the public jumps into a mob, willing to believe unsubstantiated, decades-old allegations against an African-American citizen who has spent the last half a century trying to foster an appreciation for the commonalities of every American, regardless of race, gender or religion,” McMonagle wrote. “There is no hope that Mr. Cosby can receive a trial free from outside influence in Montgomery County, as due process requires.”

Incidentally, a judge ruled against prosecutors, deciding that only one of the 13 other alleged women can testify at the upcoming trial.
Montco DA Kevin R. Steele/Submitted Photo


And it wasn’t the first time McMonagle invoked race in the case.  

After Cosby’s pretrial hearing Sept. 6, 2016, McMonagle said from the courthouse steps, “Mr. Cosby has spent his entire life trying to fight against injustice, trying to help other people overcome racism and prejudice,” and claimed the media has presumed Cosby guilty, not innocent.

“The media has championed the causes of his accusers with little thought to investigation, with little thought to exposing the motivations behind any accusations…,” McMonagle said at the time.

That same day, a Cosby spokesman fired off a statement expounding on the defense team’s claims.

“Mr. Cosby is no stranger to discrimination and racial hatred and throughout his career Mr. Cosby has always used his voice and his celebrity to highlight the commonalities and has portrayed the differences that are not negative - no matter the race, gender and religion of a person.

“Yet, over the last 14 months, Mr. Cosby and those who have supported him, have been ignored while lawyers like Gloria Allred hold press conferences to accuse him of crimes for un-witnessed events that allegedly occurred almost a half century earlier,” the statement read.

The spokesman claimed Cosby’s civil rights have been trampled upon and argued the campaign against him “builds on racial bias and prejudice that can pollute the court of public opinion.”

Bill Cosby Leaves Ccourt/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Cosby, 79, faces a June 5, 2017, trial on charges of aggravated indecent assault in connection with his alleged inappropriate contact with Constand.


Stay tuned. I’ll be reporting from the Cosby trial beginning June 5.