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Who is Tom Mesereau? As Bill Cosby's retrial opens, meet his Hollywood lawyer

Cosby's lawyer Tom Mesereau is known as one of Hollywood's most sought-after legal aces, with a string of seemingly improbable courtroom victories and a client list that has included Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, and Robert Blake.

Bill Cosby leaves the Montgomery County Courthouse, followed by his attorney Thomas Mesereau after a pre-trial hearing for his second trial on sexual assault.
Bill Cosby leaves the Montgomery County Courthouse, followed by his attorney Thomas Mesereau after a pre-trial hearing for his second trial on sexual assault.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Tom Mesereau's view of the sexual assault case against Bill Cosby has been consistent since long before he became the entertainer's lawyer.

He explained it the day Cosby was arrested in 2015, when Mesereau told CNN that Cosby's confidential lawsuit settlement and payment to Andrea Constand should be central to the defense.

"If it happened in this case — and I would have trouble believing it didn't — and I were cross-examining the person, the first thing I would ask her would be, 'What's more important to you, money or principle?' " he said.

Now Mesereau will get his chance.

The man who will defend Cosby as his second sexual assault trial begins Monday in Norristown is known as one of Hollywood's most sought-after legal aces, with a string of seemingly improbable courtroom victories and a client list that has included Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, and actor Robert Blake.

But he does not quite fit the stereotype of a Hollywood defense lawyer. Where other attorneys are brash, loud, or prone to courtroom theatrics, Mesereau exudes bookishness and a quietly analytic nature in court. He claims – at least in front of the cameras – an aversion to trying his cases in the media. And his distinctive silver-white, shoulder-length hair seems almost out of place amid the image-obsessed culture reflected in his client list.

Yet it's hard to argue with his results. In a decades-long career, Mesereau has scored a series of improbable wins — most famously a 2005 acquittal for Jackson in a child-molestation case.

And now, Cosby is hoping Mesereau, who is expected to deliver the defense's opening statement to the jury Monday, can bring some of that same magic to Norristown.

He took on the case — along with lawyers Kathleen Bliss, Becky James, and Lane Vines — in August, after Cosby's first trial ended with a hung jury and the entertainer parted ways with Philadelphia lawyer Brian J. McMonagle.

"Seemingly unwinnable case that's already been predetermined in the media, and everybody thinks Cosby's a goner — that's a classic case for Tom to want to take," said Jennifer Keller, one of his classmates at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco. "He captivates juries. And he wins cases considered to be unwinnable."

A former Harvard boxer, Mesereau is the son of an Army major and a grandson of the owner of famed Manhattan Italian joint Mamma Leone's Restaurant. Yet he took years after graduating to settle into his own career path. He chose criminal defense work only after studying international relations at the London School of Economics and working on Capitol Hill.

When Blake hired him after the Baretta star was charged with murdering his wife in 2003, Mesereau was virtually unknown outside Los Angeles legal circles. He ultimately left the case before Blake was acquitted.

But it was the improbable not-guilty verdict Mesereau won in Jackson's case a few years later that catapulted him into the upper echelon of Hollywood's go-to defense attorneys.

Now 67, he also does pro-bono legal work, running a law clinic in Los Angeles and traveling to Alabama about once a year for the last few decades to represent defendants in death-penalty cases.

"He's at least as devoted to his pro-bono practices as he is to running around defending celebrities for lots of money," Keller said.

Charles Salvagio, an attorney who has worked with Mesereau on several death-penalty cases in Alabama, described him as "the best cross-examiner I've ever seen."

When the duo won a 2003 acquittal in the long-shot case of Wesley Quick, a man who had been sentenced to death for two murders nearly a decade earlier, Mesereau's true skills came to the fore, Salvagio said.

Mesereau cross-examined the prosecution's star witness — one of Quick's friends who had testified that the defendant had previously threatened to kill people — and spent hours methodically needling and picking apart his story. Prosecutors objected, calling the drawn-out interrogation irrelevant.

Mesereau, Salvagio recalled, pointed to the witness and declared: "The relevance, your honor, is that this man is the killer!" The witness began nodding his head, Salvagio said, as if indicating that he was indeed guilty.

Salvagio called it a "Perry Mason moment" unlike any he had seen. "If you can tell me another [lawyer] who's ever had a moment like that," he said in an interview last week, "I'd like to see it."

Such relentless questioning might be one of the most noticeable differences at Cosby's retrial.

At the first trial, Angela Agrusa, then a member of the defense team, spent much of the cross-examination walking Constand through documents, prior statements, and cellphone records. But Constand largely stuck to her story and remained calm.

Those who know Mesereau say that he tends to rely on his own memory rather than stacks of documents, and that it's hard to prepare for a cross-examination from him.

With Constand, he is likely to echo his successful approach at Jackson's trial. There, he accused the mother of Jackson's central accuser in the case of a "pattern … of ensnaring people for money," exploiting Jackson's fame and wealth, and trying to profit from the accusations. His barrage of questions led her to admit she had twice lied under oath.

"Did they go to the police?" Mesereau asked jurors in that case. "No! They went to a lawyer, and then to another lawyer."

Although Mesereau is a frequent cable news commentator, he professes discomfort with the glare of the media spotlight.

"When I was defending actor Robert Blake in his homicide case, he told me that cameras were like a drug – and no one is immune. He was correct," Mesereau wrote in a 2011 column for Los Angeles Lawyer magazine. "For whatever reason, lawyers have a tendency to change their countenance and alter their values when cameras loom. This is dangerous."

At a hearing last month in the Cosby case, Mesereau waded into a throng of reporters from around the world saying he intended to make a statement — then said only that he did not intend to try the case in the press.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, his chief opponent when testimony begins Monday, remains unconvinced by the defense lawyer's self-effacing remarks.

Steele has repeatedly accused Mesereau and his team of putting forth arguments in court that have little chance of prevailing but are intended to shape the public narrative, such as the objection last week that prosecutors were exhibiting racial bias during jury selection when they struck one black woman from the jury pool.

And when Mesereau's team filed a motion in February accusing the district attorney of prosecutorial misconduct, Steele railed: "This smacks of just another attempt by counsel to manipulate the optics."

Steele's team also will have a new approach for the retrial, which will include testimony from five other women who have accused Cosby of drugging and assaulting them. At the first trial, only one other accuser could be included.

During passionate opening arguments in June, prosecutor Kristen Feden repeated more than once that the case is about "trust, betrayal, and the inability to consent." She warned jurors not to be distracted by Cosby's celebrity or to confuse him with Dr. Huxtable, the lovable family man he portrayed on television.

One person unlikely to have changed his approach between the two trials is the 80-year-old defendant. Cosby didn't testify last summer, and has remained a largely silent observer at every court appearance.

In an interview last year, Mesereau said he reminds his celebrity clients to tune out media coverage and public opinions.

"Celebrities have an unrealistic view of how the media affects jurors," he said. "They are convinced that whoever wins the public relations battle wins in court. Often, the very opposite is true. While public relations and media manipulations may bring benefits, trials are won in the courtroom before twelve intelligent, instinctive, and committed individuals."