Bill Cosby “fears” federal prosecutors might decide to pursue a racketeering and sex trafficking case against him similar to the one that recently succeeded against R&B singer R. Kelly in New York, his criminal defense lawyer revealed in a California courtroom Friday.
Cosby’s lawyer Jennifer Bonjean spoke by phone at a hearing on Cosby’s request to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and sidestep a follow-up deposition in his civil court battle with accuser Judy Huth. Bonjean claimed R. Kelly’s conviction last September and other factors including W. Kamau Bell’s new Showtime docuseries We Need to Talk About Cosby show her client is not out of criminal jeopardy.
She said the docuseries was “whipping the pubic into a frenzy,” and with the backdrop of the ongoing #MeToo movement, Cosby’s fear of future prosecution “is not fanciful, it’s not imaginary.”
Bonjean argued that Huth, the accuser now suing Cosby with claims he sexually assaulted her at the Playboy Mansion in 1974 when she was 15 years old and he was 37, already deposed Cosby once before and now wants to ask sweeping follow-up questions along the lines of, “Have you ever sexually assaulted anyone, anywhere, at any time in the last 84 years of your life.”
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Craig Karlan listened patiently throughout the hour-long hearing and declined to rule from the bench but said he was leaning toward allowing Cosby to plead the Fifth. (He promised a written ruling soon.)
“I don’t see the assertion as frivolous here especially given what happened in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Karlan said. He added that beyond possible racketeering charges, Cosby also faces the possibility that state prosecutors might reverse course and bring charges in the criminal investigation involving accusers whose allegations are not barred by statutes of limitations.
“Is there a reasonable fear of prosecution based on providing the information sought? The answer is: He does have a reasonable fear that he could be incriminating himself if in fact he provides the information and the statute of limitations have not run,” Karlan said. “I don’t see it as that close a call.”
Huth first sued Cosby in 2014, but her complaint was put on hold by Cosby’s two prior criminal trials in Pennsylvania related to accuser Andrea Constand and the ongoing Covid pandemic. The case got back on track last year after Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned Cosby’s conviction for sexually assaulting Constand in 2004 and he walked out of prison a free man.
In its stunning decision, the court said Cosby’s right to due process was violated because Montgomery County prosecutors had promised they wouldn’t bring charges back in 2005. Relying on that promise, Cosby gave civil deposition testimony related to Constand that was used against him at his criminal trial a decade later.
Bonjean brought up R. Kelly’s recent conviction as she argued Friday that federal prosecutors “have been very aggressive about bringing claims against celebrities under a series of RICO violations, pleading around the statutes of limitations (and) charging people with predicate acts that date back decades.” (The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, known as RICO, is more typically used in business corruption and mob cases.)
“I also represent R. Kelly, who most certainly was prosecuted under a RICO theory in which he was a celebrity, and the theory went that there was an inner circle of people who work for celebrities and helped him get sex,” Bonjean said. “We know that federal prosecutors are creatively using federal statutes to prosecute individuals with allegations that go back a very, very long time.”
Huth’s lawyer John West argued Friday that Cosby shouldn’t “automatically” get a “lifetime pass” with the Fifth Amendment on the theory that prosecutors might suddenly spring criminal charges on him for cases that are decades old.
Either way, Judge Karlan said the Huth case is moving ahead. He set a new trial date of May 9, giving both sides an extra month to prepare, and agreed to take up another dispute in the case later this month related to Cosby’s request for an independent medical examination of Huth. (She’s fighting the request.)
Huth first sued Cosby in December 2014, claiming the comedian approached her and a 16-year-old friend as they watched him working on a film set in 1974. Huth says Cosby gave her alcohol at a follow-up meeting a few days later, “as part of a game he proposed,” and then took her to the Playboy Mansion.
According to Huth, Cosby led her to a bedroom inside the home of magazine mogul Hugh Hefner and tried to kiss her on the mouth as he slid his hand down her pants and used her hand to perform a sex act on him. After filing her complaint for sexual battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, Huth visited the LAPD’s special victims unit with lawyer Gloria Allred and filed a report. No criminal charges in the case were ever filed. Cosby, 84, “vehemently” denies Huth’s claims, according to his publicist Andrew Wyatt.
Huth’s suit isn’t the only civil case still pending against the disgraced former TV star. He was sued by actress and visual artist Lili Bernard in federal court in New Jersey last October. Bernard claims Cosby drugged and raped her at the Trump Taj Mahal casino resort in Atlantic City in or around August 1990 after she met him on the set of The Cosby Show, and he offered to help advance her career.
Cosby was ordered to respond to her complaint by Friday.