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Cosby asks to move trial from Montco, blaming politics, 'slanted' media

With his sexual assault trial looming next year, Bill Cosby's lawyers raised a question Friday likely to dominate discussion surrounding the closely-watched celebrity legal spectacle:

With his sexual assault trial looming next year, Bill Cosby's lawyers raised a question Friday likely to dominate discussion surrounding the closely-watched celebrity legal spectacle:

Can the 79-year-old entertainer receive a fair trial in Montgomery County - or for that matter, anywhere else?

In a new filing, the defense urged Judge Steven T. O'Neill to move the trial from Norristown to another Pennsylvania county or, failing that, pull the jury from a larger urban center with "more diverse and opposing viewpoints."

They argued that the local jury pool has been permanently poisoned by "extensive, sustained and pervasive" media coverage and by District Attorney Kevin R. Steele's use of the Cosby case in the campaign that swept him into office last year.

"Branded variously a monster, a sociopath and sexual predator, everyone from the current district attorney of Montgomery County to President Obama has publicly weighed in on the allegations against Mr. Cosby," defense lawyers Brian J. McMonagle and Angela Agrusa wrote.

Their motion - filed a year to the day since Cosby's arrest on three counts of aggravated indecent assault - is expected to be one of the last major issues O'Neill will be asked to decide before the trial, which he has said he intends to hold by June.

The filing left legal experts scratching their heads and wondering how Cosby's lawyers would convince the judge that Montgomery County residents were more susceptible than those anywhere else in the state to the tidal wave of media coverage on the entertainer's legal travails.

More than 50 women have come forward during the last two years to accuse Cosby of sexual misconduct stretching back decades. The drumbeat of allegations has generated worldwide headlines - including some quoted in Friday's in filing - labeling the once beloved actor everything from "America's creepy uncle" to "America's Rapist."

"The national press coverage . . . has been almost unprecedented in its scope and bias," McMonagle and Agrusa wrote. "Hundreds - if not thousands - of articles have been published with uncritical accounts of allegations of supposed assaults that occurred decades ago."

Prosecutors said they would not oppose the change-of-venue request. Though the defense lawyers did not name a preferred new location for the trial, their filing appeared to offer a clue.

"Larger media markets generally contain more diverse and opposing viewpoints," the wrote, "and the prejudicial impact of the blatantly one-sided media coverage of this case might be dampened by the reduced media saturation in those larger markets, with populations in excess of 1.2 million people."

Philadelphia and Allegheny are the only Pennsylvania counties that big.

Should the judge grant the venue change, the state's Supreme Court would choose the new locale. Typically, justices look for counties similar in size to the original location of the prosecution, a spokesman for the state court system said, though there is no legal requirement that they do so.

Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University law professor, suggested the defense request to shift the trial from the bedroom communities of Montgomery County to a more urban locale "may be code for a more racially or economically diverse community."

Cosby's lawyers have previously raised the specter of race in their defense, accusing prosecutors of lining up predominantly white women accusers to testify and playing on racist tropes of black men as sexual predators.

But Levenson also noted race may not play so large a role in Cosby's case.

"Bill Cosby made his reputation as a crossover actor," she said, "with wide appeal to both white and African American audiences."

Studies also suggest suburban juries tend to be more trusting of authority figures, Levenson said, while urban juries are more receptive to arguments involving allegations of misconduct by police and prosecutors.

In their filing Friday, McMonagle and Agrusa slammed Steele for campaign ads he ran last year that criticized one of his predecessors for failing to prosecute Cosby when the case's central accuser, Andrea Constand, first came forward more than a decade ago alleging Cosby drugged and assaulted her in his Cheltenham mansion.

One of Steele's campaign ads compared Cosby to sexual predators he had prosecuted earlier in his career - a fact that could strengthen the defense argument that the local jury pool, in particular, has been trained to view Cosby in a negative light, said Philadelphia defense lawyer William J. Brennan.

Drawing comparisons to another celebrity case - O.J. Simpson's 1995 murder trial - Brennan said: "Gil Garcetti, [the former Los Angeles district attorney,] didn't use O.J. as a prop to campaign on. Right or wrong, Kevin R. Steele decided to use Bill Cosby."

Still, the judge in the case has signaled Cosby's lawyers may have a tough time convincing him that finding an impartial jury panel is impossible in Norristown.

"Until you start to talk to jurors who potentially will be sitting, finding facts, applying law, and rendering verdicts," O'Neill said at a hearing last month, change-of-venue motions "are not real helpful."