Cosby has been accused of sexually abusing several women.

Cosby has been accused of sexually abusing several women.

ED HILLE / The Philadelphia Inquirer/ Pool

Bill Cosby’s preliminary hearing: What took so long?

It’s been five months since Cosby was charged. And we’re still at the beginning of the process.

Though Bill Cosby was charged with sexual assault in December, today’s the first time we’ll hear how prosecutors plan to prove the allegations against him.

The disgraced comedian, who’s been accused by dozens of women of sexual violence, will appear today in Norristown for a preliminary hearing on the only criminal charges he faces: Ones having to do with a 12-year-old incident of alleged sexual assault in his Cheltenham home. Other accusations against Cosby, 78, from across the country were too old to prosecute.

It’s unclear how long the hearing will last, but once it’s over, the judge will decide if there’s enough evidence to move the case forward and send it toward a trial or a plea deal. Here’s what to expect and why it matters:

What’s at stake

So today’s a preliminary hearing, meaning we’re not at trial stage yet, but it’s the most significant hearing thus far in the criminal case against Cosby. The most important thing to remember about preliminary hearings is that only the prosecution presents its case — and it’s an abridged version.

In order for prosecutors to move the case against a defendant past the preliminary hearing stage, they only have to prove that there’s enough evidence to show probable cause in justifying the charges against a person. In fact, many low-profile defendants (and even some high profile ones) waive their preliminary hearings entirely in order to focus on preparing for trial. 

That’s unlikely to happen today. Cosby’s team of attorneys has tried everything it can to delay the case (more on that later), and forcing prosecutors to go through a preliminary hearing can only help that cause.

By the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, the judge can do one of a few things:

  1. Order that charges stand and the case will head toward trial or a plea bargain.
  2. Drop all charges against Cosby because there isn’t enough evidence.
  3. Drop some charges because there isn’t enough evidence and uphold others (though this is unlikely as Cosby faces three counts of related charges).

Remember: This decision will be based only on whether there’s enough evidence for a jury to reasonably here and decide, a far lower standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” that’s used during trial.

A refresher on the charges

Cosby faces charges of aggravated indecent assault in connection with a 2004 incident at his house just outside Philadelphia. Prosecutors say he drugged and sexually assaulted Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee, in his home. Cosby claims the encounter was consensual.

A year later, she reported the incident to authorities, but then-Montco District Attorney Bruce Castor declined to charge the comedian. Constand sued Cosby and the civil case was settled in 2006. His defense team in that case wanted a clause in the settlement to ensure no criminal charges were filed, but that didn’t happen.

Once other women began coming forward last year with stories of Cosby’s alleged sexual misconduct, Castor’s decision to not charge the entertainer became central to the campaign for who would be Montgomery County’s next district attorney. Kevin Steele, who won the election over Castor, promised to re-open the case against the comedian.

At the same time, a case filed by the Associated Press to obtain a copy of the deposition in that civil case was making its way through the courts. In July, the AP won and the court unsealed documents from the federal lawsuit in which Cosby admitted to using quaaludes to drug women that he wanted to have sex with.

It was just in time. The statute of limitations on filing charges in Pennsylvania was up at the end of December, the same month Steele used the depositions as a basis for charging Cosby with aggravated indecent assault — a charge that could land him in prison for years.

Why today matters

For all that’s been said about Cosby and his alleged transgressions, we don’t know much about how things in this case will play out, and today’s the first time we could get a glimpse of that.

Though depositions were released and charging documents were filed, both of which detailed the alleged incident itself, we don’t know much about what type of strategy prosecutors are going to employ. There are few issues to consider:

  1. Cosby’s defense will almost undoubtedly say the encounter was consensual; At trial, Steele and his team will need to find a way to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was not.
  2. How might the prosecutors handle other allegations against Cosby? Typically, they’re not allowed to bring up past actions, but if it’s something that can establish an M.O., they can argue to introduce other accusers. Imagine the scene: Women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault walking into a Montgomery County courtroom to testify in the only case — that we know of — that could send him to prison.
  3. The political nature of the charges being filed will need to be addressed at some point. Cosby’s attorneys have said in the press that they feel the charges were filed by Steele for purely political reasons. He made a promise to re-open the case in order to win the election, and he went a step further in formally charging Cosby.

Why it’s taken so long since the charges

It’s been a whole thing.

Some have speculated Cosby’s attorneys are delaying the case until their client, who is not in great health, dies. Others have said it’s a normal attorney tactic to use their considerable resources to drown the prosecution in documents and hearings and motions and filings.

You’ll probably recall that Cosby was in court for this before. Before the case even made it to the preliminary hearing stage, the courts had to rule on the first big hurdle: The question of whether or not Castor and Cosby’s former attorney made an agreement that he wouldn’t be charged in relation to the Constand case.

Cosby’s attorneys wanted the case to be thrown out, and Castor testified on their side, saying he did make a no-prosecution deal with Cosby’s former attorney in exchange for the comedian’s promise to not plead the fifth during civil depositions. However, Constand’s lawyers at the time testified that never happened, and it isn’t something they would have agreed to.

In the end, Judge Steven O’Neil sided with prosecutors and found there was no record of such a deal and there wasn’t enough evidence to show the case shouldn’t move forward. Cosby’s lawyers appealed his decision, and they lost. The appeals will continue, and each strategy moving forward is subject to separate hearings, motions and testimony.

All that is to say that though today is the beginning of the preliminary hearing, we’re a long way from resolving this thing.

We’ll be covering the hearing throughout the day today. Follow us on Twitter for updates.

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