Actor and comedian Bill Cosby leaves the courtroom after a pretrial hearing for his sexual assault case at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania. March 30, 2018. Credit: Dominick Reuter | AP

NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania — In a bruising opening statement Tuesday, Bill Cosby’s lead defense attorney portrayed the legendary entertainer as a victim of “a con artist” who used the knowledge she gained in two college courses on sexual assault to execute an elaborate scheme to extract a multi-million-dollar legal settlement from him.

Speaking in a silky baritone, Thomas Mesereau painted a damning portrait of Cosby’s main accuser, Andrea Constand, attempting to make the accuser the focus of the trial. Mesereau, defending Cosby against three counts of aggravated indecent assault, described Constand as a professional failure, a financial wreck and a deceitful schemer:

“She was madly in love with his fame and money,” he told jurors who sat rapt in the crowded courtroom.

Constand’s possible financial motives played a role in Cosby’s original trial, which ended with a hung jury last June. But Mesereau’s punishing portrayal represented a new level of intensity in the defense attempt to disparage Cosby’s accuser, painting a far darker image of Constand than the one laid out by Cosby’s defense team in the first trial.

In Mesereau’s telling, Cosby — who sat expressionless a few steps behind his lawyer — appears as a victim. Cosby “was lonely and troubled,” Mesereau said, when he met Constand in the early 2000s through her work as the director of operations for the women’s basketball team at Temple University, where the entertainer sat on the board of trustees and served as the unofficial public face of the institution.

He was in his mid-60s. She was 30. The older man told the younger woman that he had never really recovered from the murder of his son, Ennis, in the late 1990s during a robbery, Mesereau said.

Cosby, the lawyer said, “made the terrible mistake of confiding in this person what was going on in his life.”

In the narrative laid out by Mesereau, Constand was absolutely the wrong person to pull into his confidence. The lawyer, who is best known for winning an acquittal on child molestation charges against pop star Michael Jackson, described Constand as a failure, a cheat and a mooch. She stiffed friends who put her up when she needed a place to stay and was forever complaining about her financial problems, Mesereau said. At Temple, Mesereau said, Constand even ran “a pyramid scheme,” attempting to extract $65 apiece from people she met.

That picture of Constand is critical to the defense strategy laid out by Mesereau, who replaced Brian McMonagle, a prominent Philadelphia defense lawyer who withdrew from the case after the mistrial without explaining why. Mesereau has injected an important piece of new evidence into the trial: the specifics of a $3.38 million settlement that Constand received after suing Cosby in the mid-2000s.

The prosecution is likely to try to plant an idea in the heads of jurors: Why would Cosby pay Constand if he weren’t guilty? But, for the defense, the settlement is the fulcrum of their claim that Constand is greedy. Plus, Mesereau said with an air of nonchalance, Cosby was merely trying to rid himself of a “nuisance.”

“This was a paltry sum to him to avoid all this,” Mesereau said.

Mesereau’s presentation contrasted with the more workmanlike remarks the day before by the lead prosecutor, Kevin Steele, who delivered a halting, sometimes disjointed opening statement and often seemed to be searching for the right words.

Cosby’s defense team won a key ruling before the trial began Monday, and Mesereau made generous use of it in his opening remarks. Steven O’Neill, the veteran judge overseeing the case, reversed a previous decision and allowed testimony from a Temple University counselor who had worked with sexual assault victims. The counselor, Marguerite “Margo” Jackson, says Constand told her that she could lie about being sexually assaulted by a celebrity to make money in a legal settlement.

O’Neill had blocked Jackson from testifying at the first trial.

Jackson is a potential key to the defense plan to paint Constand as a calculating liar. But Mesereau buttressed that approach with a withering critique of Constand’s professional life.

Constand had been a star player at the University of Arizona and briefly played professional basketball in Europe. But once her playing career ended, Mesereau said, her prospects dimmed. She dabbled with modeling and aspired to enter the entertainment industry, Mesereau said. Cosby, in the lawyer’s telling, offered to help, introducing her to a top agent, as well as a prominent director and an agent.

But those efforts went nowhere, Mesereau said, and Constand left Temple, returning to Canada broke and unemployed. She was “bitter,” Mesereau said, in those months after January 2004 when she alleges that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her at his estate in an upscale enclave in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where the retrial is being held.

In that respect, Constand was similar to other women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault over the years. Five of those women might be called as witnesses by the prosecution in their efforts to persuade jurors that Cosby is a serial sexual criminal. To hammer home that point, Mesereau — a flamboyant courtroom figure with startling white, nearly shoulder-length hair who is based in Los Angeles — offered a beginner’s course on Hollywood to his suburban, East Coast audience in the jury box.

“Hollywood is a treacherous place,” Mesereau said as he unspooled a retelling of Cosby’s meteoric rise to the heights of stardom. “If you’re a young star, everybody wants a piece of the action.”

The young hopefuls who come to Hollywood are desperate for people like Cosby to offer help with their careers, Mesereau said. But when things don’t work out, Mesereau said, “they’re angry.”

Mesereau’s remarks about the rites of the entertainment industry bolster a defense strategy of characterizing Cosby’s accusers as disgruntled wannabes. Prosecutors have been authorized by the court to call as many as five additional accusers to establish a pattern of behavior. The first of those women, a former model and aspiring actress named Heidi Thomas, took the witness stand late Tuesday and told jurors that Cosby sexually assaulted her in 1984 during an acting exercise at an estate in Reno, Nevada.

Thomas, now a private music teacher and mother of three adult daughters who has been married for more than three decades, said she traveled to Reno after her modeling agency said that the man they referred to as “Mr. C” had offered to mentor talented young actors. Thomas, at the time, was represented by a formidable Denver agent named Jo Farrell, who was nicknamed “The Barracuda.” Farrell has represented several women who say they were sexually assaulted by Cosby after being referred to him by the agency.

Before the trip, Thomas said, Cosby even called her parents to discuss her future. When she arrived in Reno, Thomas said, she was not driven to hotel, but instead was taken to a sprawling estate where Cosby was staying.

The well-known actor didn’t think much of her first couple of attempts to work through some acting lines. Thomas said she was eager to make a good impression on the famous man who’d taken an interest in her career.

“I’m a little nobody from Colorado, and this is this great man,” she said.

Thomas, who was 24 at the time, said she had never been drunk. Cosby, who was then 46, pressured her to take a sip of white wine to “relax” and to better understand how to act like she had been drinking heavily, Thomas said. From that moment on, she told jurors, all she can remember are “snapshots.”

In one of those images seared into her brain she can remember awakening on a bed while Cosby is forcing himself into her mouth. He always referred to himself in the third person as “Mr. C” or “Your Friend,” Thomas said.

Under cross-examination, Cosby defense attorney Kathleen Bliss sought to poke holes in Thomas’ account by citing a media interview in which she said Cosby was “mounting her.”

Thomas didn’t seem rattled.

“He was putting himself in my mouth. Is that mounting?” Thomas said.

Thomas testified that she was so disoriented during her trip to Reno that she can barely remember going to the comic’s show at a Reno casino and meeting members of the band, The Temptations. She didn’t even remember flying home.

Thomas, an affable sort who drew laughter from the courtroom audience while describing her acting aspirations, said she was determined to figure out what happened to her. She flew to St. Louis to confront Cosby, but only managed to tag along for a late night dinner. She posed for a photo with Cosby. But he wasn’t happy about it.

By then, she said, she’d figured out that the mentoring relationship wasn’t going anywhere.

“At that point,” she told jurors, “I didn’t care if he was happy or not.”

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