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Allegheny

Racism allegations heat up Cosby jury selection in Pittsburgh

Ben Schmitt
| Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 1:42 p.m.
Bill Cosby walks into the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday, May 23, 2017, for the second day of jury selection.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Bill Cosby walks into the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday, May 23, 2017, for the second day of jury selection.
Bill Cosby walks into the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh for the second day of jury selection on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Bill Cosby walks into the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh for the second day of jury selection on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
Bill Cosby walks into the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh for the second day of jury selection on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Bill Cosby walks into the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh for the second day of jury selection on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

Racial discrimination accusations and a previous Pittsburgh Police Department scandal crept into the Bill Cosby trial jury selection Tuesday.

After 11 jurors were selected, Cosby's lead defense attorney Brian McMonagle pointed out that only one was black. He said that prosecutors had stricken two capable potential black jurors without cause.

“This is a systematic exclusion of African Americans” on the jury, McMonagle told Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Steven T. O'Neill.

The dispute occurred late in the afternoon after prosecutors used veto power, known legally as a strike, to block a black woman as the 12th juror. She had said she only knew basic information about the Cosby case and could be impartial in deliberating his fate.

Prosecutors countered that the move had nothing to do with race. They said the woman was a former Pittsburgh police detective once criminally charged and cleared in a major scandal involving falsification of overtime records. That same scandal led to the jailing and firing of former Police Chief Nate Harper.

Assistant District Attorney M. Stewart Ryan told O'Neill that charges were dropped against the woman, but she later filed a civil lawsuit against the city. He warned of a possible bias against prosecutors.

After legal wrangling behind closed doors, O'Neill allowed the prosecution's veto of the woman as a juror. He said the reason for keeping her off the jury was “race neutral.”

There are 11 jurors selected so far: seven men and four women. All are white, except for one black woman.

O'Neill through a spokesman asked reporters not to name the former detective, even though she was not chosen.

Harper pleaded guilty Oct. 18, 2013, to federal felony counts of conspiracy and failure to file income tax returns from 2008 through 2011. Harper served 18 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to diverting money from a public account for personal purposes, and for failing to file income tax returns. He was released from federal prison in May 2015.

In the Cosby case, the pool of potential jurors is coming from Allegheny County because Cosby's attorneys argued that pretrial publicity would make it difficult to find impartial jury candidates in Montgomery County, where Cosby lives.

McMonagle told O'Neill on Tuesday he was concerned about the jury makeup. Cosby, in an interview last week, said race could be a factor in the charges against him.

“We believe it is of paramount importance that there be a diverse jury,” McMonagle said.

Cosby, 79, is accused of drugging and molesting a Temple University women's basketball team manager in 2004 in his suburban Philadelphia home. He is free on $100,000 bond and faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

McMonagle also noted that Cosby's accuser is white.

O'Neill said the race issue could be raised later if defense lawyers pursued a legal challenge on the statistical makeup of the race of the jury pool.

Jury selection continues Wednesday, with a goal of selecting 12 jurors and six alternates to travel east to suburban Philadelphia. The trial is scheduled to begin June 5.

The jurors' names, ages and occupations were being kept private.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Bencschmitt.

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