The Montgomery County judge who has presided for two years over the sexual assault prosecution of Bill Cosby said Thursday that he would not recuse himself, ending one of the defense's last efforts to delay the case days before the retrial is to begin.
Cosby's lawyers had sought to remove Judge Steven T. O'Neill because his wife, Deborah, works as a social worker and coordinator for the University of Pennsylvania's sexual trauma treatment and prevention team.
Tom Mesereau, Cosby's lead defense lawyer, said that Deborah O'Neill also made a donation to Women Organized Against Rape, a group that plans to hold protests and vigils outside the courthouse during Cosby's retrial, scheduled to begin next week in Norristown.
"We're talking about a combination of factors that could result in a reasonable appearance of bias," he said.
But after hearing arguments on the issue Thursday morning, Judge O'Neill ruled that he has no bias in the case. The judge appeared to choke back tears as he delivered his ruling aloud in the courtroom.
"She's an independent woman, and she has a right to be involved in anything that she believes in," O'Neill said of his wife. "My spouse and I share the love of each other, our families, and most of all our children and grandchild. What we do not share are unified views of social, legal, and political issues."
O'Neill also said the donation was made by the University of Pennsylvania department where his wife works, and insisted that "there was never any marital assets" given to the group.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Falin said the judge's wife made that donation on behalf of her department 13 months ago, and could not have known that the group would plan vigils during Cosby's trial.
"Dr. [Deborah] O'Neill has not stated anything about this case," he said. "They are kind of trying to chain her to this vigil by degrees of separation."
O'Neill has presided over the case since its outset, including last summer's trial, which ended with a hung jury. His decision not to step aside was the highlight of a day's worth of pretrial haggling by prosecutors and defense, with another scheduled to come Friday.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday, when 120 Montgomery County residents will be summoned as potential jurors in the case. Lawyers said they expect opening arguments to begin April 9. O'Neill said he would sequester the selected panel — 12 jurors and six alternates — beginning the evening of April 8.
Cosby, 80, is charged with aggravated indecent assault from allegedly drugging and molesting Andrea Constand at his home in Cheltenham in 2004. The judge has agreed to let prosecutors call five other accusers at this trial, in their bid to show that his alleged attack on Constand was part of a pattern of predatory behavior.
At Thursday's hearing, the entertainer wore a pinstripe suit and appeared to pay close attention to arguments, nodding or shaking his head vigorously at times.
Among the arguments O'Neill heard was a bid by Cosby's lawyers to introduce the 2006 confidential settlement between Constand and Cosby that ended her lawsuit against him.
Prosecutors argued that if jurors are allowed to hear about the settlement, they would like to have Constand's lawyers testify about the process of negotiating that settlement.
It's not clear if or when O'Neill will rule on those and other pretrial arguments.