In 2016, as Bill Cosby’s legal team prepared for trial in his stunning sexual assault case in Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court quietly heard a death row inmate’s appeal.
Lawyers for Charles Hicks questioned whether three women who said he had beaten and choked them in Texas should have testified at his trial in a fourth woman’s death in the Pocono Mountains.
Prosecutors hoped to show a pattern of “strikingly similar” conduct, even if only one woman died. The seven Supreme Court justices issued five separate opinions on the use of the “prior bad act” testimony.
And that may explain why they are hearing Cosby’s appeal Tuesday.
In taking the case, the justices appear eager to clear up the law on one of the murkiest questions plaguing criminal trials: When should a jury hear about someone’s past?
Investigators say it can be crucial to show a signature crime pattern, but defense lawyers say it often amounts to character assassination.
The debate has been central to the high-profile prosecutions of actor and comedian Cosby, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and a Roman Catholic Church official in Philadelphia charged with protecting predator priests. But it also comes into play for lesser-known people like Hicks, who remains on Pennsylvania’s death row.
“The issue is really intriguing because it forces defendants to spend time fighting shadows of uncharged, sometimes unrelated accusations that never really became formal criminal charges,” said Philadelphia defense lawyer William J. Brennan, who was involved in the church trial. “It’s very distracting. You should focus on what you’re criminally charged with.”
Cosby has long complained that Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill let five other accusers testify at his 2018 retrial, when he became the first celebrity convicted of sexual assault in the #MeToo era. His lawyers, and his wife, Camille, have called the women gold diggers and their testimony lies.
But District Attorney Kevin Steele believes the similarities in their accounts were no mere coincidence.
“It is unusual, to say the least, that defendant has been repeatedly ... accused of engaging in sexual conduct with unconscious or otherwise incapacitated young women,” his office wrote in a Supreme Court brief this year.
Cosby, 83, has spent more than two years in prison since he was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, a Temple University employee he had taken under his wing, at his suburban Philadelphia estate in 2004.
By the time her case went to trial in 2017, after a judge unsealed Cosby’s long-buried testimony in her 2005 sexual battery lawsuit, dozens of women had come forward to say the star of “The Cosby Show” had mentored and then betrayed them.
O’Neill allowed just one of them to testify at the first trial, in which the jury could not reach a verdict.
But the following year, at the 2018 retrial, the judge let five other accusers take the stand to describe encounters with Cosby in the 1980s. Each believed they had been drugged and sexually assaulted.
Constand, a former professional basketball player from Toronto, said she became incapacitated after taking what she thought was an herbal remedy from Cosby. She said she could not fight back as he put his hand down her pants. Cosby described the penetration that followed as consensual.
An intermediate appeals court last year called O’Neill’s decision on the other accusers reasonable. Then the state Supreme Court jumped in when he appealed again.
The Cosby appeal could decide whether courts allow the expansive use of “prior bad act” witnesses that many judges have adopted in recent years or rein it in to preserve the presumption of innocence.
The testimony is often referred to as “404(b) evidence,” a reference to the statute that governs it.
“I think the Supreme Court probably wants to tighten up some of the 404(b) issues that certainly are ripe for tightening,” said Brennan, who sat through weeks of the testimony from priest-abuse victims in the 2012 church trial. “It pollutes the air for the jury.”
Pennsylvania Chief Justice Thomas Saylor raised concerns they create “mini-trials on collateral testimony” in his 2017 opinion in the Hicks case, but he still sided with the majority to uphold the conviction, if for different reasons.
The Supreme Court will also consider Tuesday whether the jury should have heard Cosby’s damaging deposition testimony from Constand’s lawsuit, when he acknowledged giving alcohol or quaaludes to some of his accusers before sexual encounters.
Defense lawyers say that Cosby, before sitting for the deposition, relied on a secret agreement from a former prosecutor that he would never be charged in Constand’s case. But O’Neill found no evidence of such a pact.
Cosby, like other defendants, does not have the right to attend the appellate arguments, which have been moved online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He resides at a state prison near Philadelphia, where several inmate deaths have been blamed on the coronavirus. Cosby’s friends have made public pleas for his early release, given his age and increased risk of infection, but he has not filed any formal legal petitions. And prosecutors say he doesn’t qualify as a sexually violent predator.
The Supreme Court is not expected to rule for several months.
Pennsylvania’s highest court on Saturday night threw out a lower court’s order preventing the state from certifying dozens of contests on its Nov 3 election ballot in the latest lawsuit filed by Republicans attempting to thwart President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the battleground state.
The state Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, threw out the three-day-old order, saying the underlying lawsuit was filed months after the expiration of a time limit in Pennsylvania’s expansive year-old mail-in voting law allowing for challenges to it.
Justices also remarked on the lawsuit’s staggering demand that an entire election be overturned retroactively.
“They have failed to allege that even a single mail-in ballot was fraudulently cast or counted,” Justice David Wecht wrote in a concurring opinion.
The state’s attorney general, Democrat Josh Shapiro, called the court’s decision “another win for Democracy.”
President Donald Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, have repeatedly and baselessly claimed that Democrats falsified mail-in ballots to steal the election from Trump. Biden beat Trump by more than 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania, a state Trump had won in 2016.
The week-old lawsuit, led by Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly of northwestern Pennsylvania, had challenged the state’s mail-in voting law as unconstitutional.
As a remedy, Kelly and the other Republican plaintiffs had sought to either throw out the 2.5 million mail-in ballots submitted under the law — most of them by Democrats — or to wipe out the election results and direct the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature to pick Pennsylvania’s presidential electors.
In any case, that request — for the state’s lawmakers to pick Pennsylvania’s presidential electors — flies in the face of a nearly century-old state law that already grants the power to pick electors to the state’s popular vote, Wecht wrote.
While the high court’s two Republicans joined the five Democrats in opposing those remedies, they split from Democrats in suggesting that the lawsuit’s underlying claims — that the state’s mail-in voting law might violate the constitution — are worth considering.
Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough, elected as a Republican in 2009, had issued the order Wednesday to halt certification of any remaining contests, including apparently contests for Congress.
It did not appear to affect the presidential contest since a day earlier, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, had certified Biden as the winner of the presidential election in Pennsylvania.
Wolf quickly appealed McCullough’s decision to the state Supreme Court, saying there was no “conceivable justification” for it.
The lawsuit’s dismissal comes after Republicans have lost a flurry of legal challenges brought by the Trump campaign and its GOP allies filed in state and federal courts in Pennsylvania.
On Friday, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia roundly rejected the Trump campaign’s latest effort to challenge the state’s election results.
In that lawsuit, Trump’s campaign had complained that its observers had not been able to scrutinize mail-in ballots as they were being processed in two Democratic bastions, Philadelphia and Allegheny County, which is home to Pittsburgh.
Trump’s lawyers vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court despite the judges’ assessment that the “campaign’s claims have no merit.”
Faulting inaction in Washington, governors and state lawmakers are racing to get pandemic relief to small-business owners, the unemployed, renters and others whose livelihoods have been upended by the widening coronavirus outbreak.
In some cases, elected officials are spending the last of a federal relief package passed in the spring as an end-of-year deadline approaches and the fall COVID-19 surge threatens their economies anew. Democrats have been the most vocal in criticizing President Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate for failing to act, but many Republican lawmakers are also sounding the alarm.
Underscoring the need for urgency, the number of new COVID-19 cases reported in the United States reached 205,557 on Friday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University – the first time its daily figure topped the 200,000 mark. Its previous daily high was 196,000 on Nov. 20.
The total number of cases reported in the U.S., since the first one in January, has topped 13 million.
The Democratic governors of Colorado and New Mexico convened special legislative sessions in the closing days of November to address the virus-related emergency. Earlier this week, the New Mexico Legislature passed a bipartisan relief bill that will deliver a one-time $1,200 check to all unemployed workers and give up to $50,000 to certain businesses.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the state took action to help residents “who have real issues about keeping food on their table, a roof over their head.”
“While the United States of America is on fire, the Trump administration has left states to fight this virus on their own,” she said, noting state efforts alone simply are not enough. “It is clear no help is coming — not from this president, not from this administration. As we have done every day this year, New Mexico will step up.”
In Colorado, a special session scheduled for Monday will consider roughly $300 million in relief to businesses, restaurants and bars, child-care providers, landlords, tenants, public schools and others.
“Even as cases have exploded across the country, Congress and the president have not yet passed much-needed relief for people,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said in announcing the session. “Here in Colorado, we want to do the best with what we have to take care of our own.”
In New Jersey and Washington state, Republicans who are a minority in both legislatures were the ones pushing for special sessions. They want to direct more money to struggling small-business owners.
Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin, who control both houses of the Legislature, are considering whether to return in December to address effects of the latest coronavirus wave after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers put forward a $500 million COVID-19 relief bill earlier this week. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, plans to convene lawmakers in December to contend with the virus, partially at Republicans’ urging.
“Senate Republicans are committed to recovering our economy that has been harmed by broad and prolonged shutdowns,” Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a statement. “We will work with anyone to find solutions.”
State government leaders want Trump and Congress to extend the Dec. 30 deadline for spending virus relief money already allocated under the CARES Act, which was approved in March, and to provide more federal funding to deal with the consequences of the latest surge.
“It’s just heartbreaking what they’re allowing to happen with no federal government intervention,” said Washington state House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat.
In making his decision to call the Minnesota Legislature into special session, Walz cited “a sense of urgency” around doing something on the state level due to the lack of a federal response.
The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits reported that more than half of the state’s charitable organizations received forgivable loans through the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program this year, while another $12 million from the CARES Act is going to organizations that provide food to the needy. But all that will be spent — or lost — by the end of December without congressional action.
“I would reiterate to our federal partners — to the outgoing administration and to the incoming Biden administration — please work together, please find a compromise in there, please. If you have to, move a package now with the idea that you will come back and move one later,” Walz said. “COVID is not going to end at the end of the month. We are in an unrelenting spike.”
In Ohio, where Republicans control every branch of government, Gov. Mike DeWine and legislative leaders pushed a $420 million pandemic spending package through a special bipartisan panel late last month. Funded through the CARES Act, it offered grants to small businesses, bars and restaurants, low-income renters, arts groups, and colleges and universities.
Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican, gives credit to the federal government for the billions in aid previously sent out, but he said small businesses and people who have lost work need more federal assistance.
“The election’s over,” Benninghoff said. “This is not a time for finger-pointing.”
In neighboring New Jersey, the partisan divide over $4 billion in COVID-19 borrowing backed by the Democratic governor and Legislature prompted a court challenge by minority Republicans. The state’s high court sided with Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, citing the unprecedented nature of the outbreak.
Even so, Murphy has regularly pleaded with Congress for more aid.
“It’s shameful that they have not acted in Congress, especially (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell and the Republican Senate, to throw a lifeline to small businesses,” he said.
Republicans have proposed a $300 million aid package to small businesses and nonprofits, but the legislation is stalled. GOP lawmakers told the governor if he does not call a special session to address the need, many businesses and charities “might not survive the winter.”
Having already committed the bulk of their virus relief allotment, lawmakers in one state, Illinois, were forced to end the year with an unaddressed $3.9 billion budget deficit. They canceled what would be their regular fall session in November, citing the health threat posed by the virus, and expressed hope for help from the nation’s capital when they return.
“If the federal government doesn’t stand up and step in, we’re in a very bad situation — for our schools, colleges and universities, health care programs, child care, senior services,” House Majority Leader Greg Harris, a Democrat, said. “This isn’t like all the blue states are hurting and all the red states are humming along. Everybody’s in bad shape.”
The Walt Disney Co. announced plans to lay off 4,000 more employees largely due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcement by the company was made in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing earlier this week, saying 32,000 employees at the parks, experiences and products division will be terminated in the first half of fiscal year 2021, which began last month.
In late September, the company had already announced plans to terminate 28,000 theme park workers. The company did not say how many of the additional 4,000 employees work at the California or Florida theme parks.
In the SEC document filed on the eve of Thanksgiving Day, the company said it also put 37,000 employees not scheduled for termination on furlough as a result of the pandemic.
“Due to the current climate, including COVID-19 impacts, and changing environment in which we are operating, the company has generated efficiencies in its staffing, including limiting hiring to critical business roles, furloughs and reductions-in-force,” the document said.
The company also said they may make more cuts in spending such as reducing film and television content investments and additional furloughs and layoffs.
In Florida, the company has been limiting attendance at its parks and changing protocols to allow for social distancing by limiting characters’ meet and greets.
Disney’s parks closed in March as the pandemic started spreading in the U.S. The Florida parks reopened in the summer, but the California parks have yet to reopen pending state and local government approvals.
Also read : Disney to axe 28,000 jobs
Countries with decreasing COVID-19 numbers still need to stay "vigilant," a World Health Organization (WHO) official said Friday.
"Even as case numbers are coming down, all countries need to remain vigilant. You've heard of this before, but we really need to emphasize it again. Do not let your guard down," Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said during a virtual briefing, reports Xinhua.
"It's good to see the measures taking effect and transmission going down. But it's not time to let up. It's time to even scale up," Van Kerkhove added.
Global COVID-19 cases have surpassed 61 million with the death toll topping 1.4 million, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University.
"What we don't want to see is situations where you are moving from a so-called lockdown state to bring the virus under control to moving to a so-called lockdown state," she warned.