In 2016, as Bill Cosby’s legal team prepared for his sexual assault trial, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard a death row inmate’s appeal. Lawyers for Charles Hicks questioned whether three women who said he had beaten and choked them should have testified at his trial in a fourth woman’s death. 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 “prior bad act” testimony. That may explain why they are hearing Cosby’s appeal Tuesday, reports the Associated Press. The justices appear eager to clear up the law on when a jury should hear about someone’s past. Investigators say it can be crucial to show a signature crime pattern. 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.
The issue “forces defendants to spend time fighting shadows of uncharged, sometimes unrelated accusations that never really became formal criminal charges,” said Philadelphia defense lawyer William Brennan, who was involved in the church trial. “It’s very distracting. You should focus on what you’re criminally charged with.” Cosby complains that Judge Steven 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 called the women gold diggers and their testimony lies. District Attorney Kevin Steele believes similarities in their accounts were no coincidence. Cosby, 83, has spent two years in prison since he was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, a Temple University employee, at his suburban Philadelphia estate in 2004.