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As Cosby's trial begins, the focus turns to the woman whose story could convict him

Despite months of court filings, voluminous press coverage and endless debate chronicling all contours of the case, it is easy to forget that the woman at its center has never spoken publicly about the night in 2004 when she says Cosby drugged and assaulted her. Still, Constand - a striking and stylish six-foot 44-year-old with a strong jaw and shock of tightly curled hair - has shown flashes of fight.

Bill Cosby accuser, Andrea Constand, arrives in Norristown in this Jan. 23 file photo.
Bill Cosby accuser, Andrea Constand, arrives in Norristown in this Jan. 23 file photo.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

He's one of the most famous celebrities in the world – a proud son of North Philadelphia who won legions of fans with a decades-spanning career in comedy clubs, movies and television's highest-rated shows.

She's a Canadian massage therapist who, though pushed to the forefront of a Hollywood scandal, has actively avoided the spotlight.

But this week in a Montgomery County courtroom it will be his word against hers, with a jury of seven men and five women left to decide which is more believable.

Starting Monday, Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial will draw the eyes of the world to Norristown. And yet despite months of court filings, press coverage and debate chronicling all contours of the case, it is easy to forget that the woman at its center, Andrea Constand, has never before spoken publicly about the night in 2004 when she says Cosby drugged and assaulted her.

His lawyers have been preparing for this moment for months, eager to challenge what they see as inconsistencies and flaws in her story, and prevent a guilty verdict that could mean as much as a decade in prison for the 79-year-old entertainer.

Constand has shown signs she is ready for the fight.

Friends characterize the former college basketball standout from Toronto — a striking and stylish six-foot 44-year-old with a strong jaw and shock of tightly curled hair – as determined and a leader.

Her Twitter feed is filled with inspirational messages in support of sexual-assault victims. Her Facebook page features photos of a tattoo inked on her upper left arm — a gladiolus, the pink flower adopted by several Cosby accusers as a symbol of their shared experiences. Adorning her wrist in a separate photo is a bracelet imprinted with one word: "Consent."

In the year and a half since Cosby was charged, Constand has formed tight friendships with some of dozens of women who have accused him, visiting them at their homes in places including California and New Mexico.

Yet, said Beth Ferrier — who says she was drugged and raped by Cosby in 1984 –  Constand has always maintained strict boundaries: She will talk for hours about basketball, dogs and family, Ferrier said.

Cosby is off limits.

Expected to last two weeks, the trial will culminate a more than two-year stretch that has seen Cosby stripped of countless honors, shunned by studios and Hollywood friends, and targeted by allegations from more than 60 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct dating back decades.

Constand's allegations — the only ones to be heard in a criminal court – have provoked a national conversation about sexual consent, inspired several states to extend statutes of limitations for sex crimes and taken on totemic stakes for Cosby accusers whose own claims are too old to prosecute.

In interviews last week, many said they plan to attend the trial. Only one – a former assistant to Cosby's agent who has come forward under the pseudonym "Kacey" – will be allowed to testify.

"I know there are a lot more that would be there if they could afford it," said Heidi Thomas, a 57-year-old Colorado mother who alleges Cosby forced himself on her during an acting lesson in 1984. "I think there's a piece of each and every one of us that wants to be there."

Constand's lawyer says she would have liked to speak more openly before now but was compelled to stay silent – first by a 2005 investigation into her claims that ultimately did not result in criminal charges and later by the confidentiality agreement she signed to settle a lawsuit against Cosby.

In a deposition taken during that suit, Cosby said he was attracted to her from the moment he spotted her across the room at Temple University's Liacouras Center in 2001.

Then in her late 20s, Constand had taken a job as operations manager for the women's basketball team after a promising collegiate career at the University of Arizona and a stint playing professionally in Italy.

Cosby, 34 years her senior, was then a member of Temple's board of trustees, a major booster and its most famous alumnus. He quickly took her under his wing and formed what both would later describe as a "mentor-mentee" bond.

Constand became a frequent visitor to his Elkins Park home. He gave her career advice, escorted her to events and introduced her to New York talent agents and the president of Swarthmore College. They exchanged gifts – cashmere sweaters and a $200 blow dryer for her, T-shirts and Temple swag for him.

"We were friendly," Constand would tell investigators in 2005. "We were not involved in any romantic relationship."

Constand was gay and just ending a relationship with another woman – a fact that she says she never disclosed to Cosby, but one prosecutors hope will bolster their argument that she didn't want to have sex with him.

And yet twice before the alleged assault, she said, Cosby made sexual advances that she rejected – once even unbuttoning her pants.

"I never gave him any reason to believe that I was interested in him," she told police in 2005. "I never really thought he would have hit on me. He is much older than my father."

Cosby, in his deposition and his own statement to police, described both a social and romantic relationship with Constand. He wooed her with dim lighting, dinners from his personal chef and fireside chats about her career goals and dreams. They would kiss and "play sex" during several liaisons, he said, including during a 2003 trip she took to Connecticut to visit him after a show at the Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Asked by Cheltenham police whether they had ever had intercourse, Cosby responded: "Never asleep or awake."

Their accounts of the alleged 2004 assault are similar, though what Cosby has described as romantic and consensual, Constand insists was anything but.

She dropped in on Cosby that night as she had done many times before. When she complained of being stressed, he offered her wine and three blue pills, telling her they were herbal remedies.

Cosby told police that he gave Constand one and a half tabs of Benadryl, a treatment he often used to relax when he had trouble sleeping.

But soon after, she told investigators, she began to feel woozy, couldn't focus, and had trouble speaking. Cosby helped her to a couch.

"I was unable to move my body," she said. "I was pretty much frozen."

Both recalled that he digitally penetrated her that night. And at 4 a.m., Constand woke up with her sweater bunched up and her bra undone. Cosby, dressed in a robe, gave her a muffin and silently walked her to the front door.

"She doesn't walk out with an attitude of a huff," he later said in his deposition. "I think I'm a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things, whatever you want to call them."

Constand later told investigators the encounter left her "emotionally shocked." It would take her more than a year, after she had moved back to Toronto and began training as a masseuse, to contact police.

"I want to say there was an element of fear," Constand told officers in 2005. "Before I was going to say anything to anyone. I had to put my own thoughts and feelings together."

Cosby's lawyers are likely to take aim at that time lapse at trial – especially because Constand continued to see Cosby at the time.

Before leaving Philadelphia, she dined with him and his friends on at least one occasion and later followed him back to his house. She says she had hoped to confront him. Later in August 2004 – before she had told her family about the alleged attack – Constand and her parents went to see him perform at a resort in Ontario.

As part of their case, prosecutors plan to call a Lehigh County psychologist they say will testify that sexual-assault victims often delay reporting the crime and continue to have contact with their assailants. But the defense has marshaled experts of its own, including one who describes herself as an expert in the science of "false memory creation."

Prosecutors also hope to bolster Constand's story with Cosby's 2005 deposition, in which he testified about acquiring drugs for sexual encounters with women; a telephone call Constand and her mother secretly recorded after the alleged assault; and testimony from "Kacey," the one other accuser Judge Steven T. O'Neill is permitting to testify.

Prosecutors had hoped to call 12 more, including Thomas, the Colorado woman. For better or worse, she said last week, Constand will now speak for them all.

"We support her," she said. "We're so thankful she walked back into this maelstrom."

Keep up with every development in Bill Cosby's case with our day-by-day recaps and explainer on everything you need to know about the case and its major players.