US comedian Bill Cosby arrives at the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 22, 2017. More than 50 women have publicly accused him of being a sexual predator over a period of four decades. Photo: Don Emmert / AFP
PITTSBURGH - A US judge kicked off jury selection Monday for Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial in a process fraught with challenges in finding a panel without pre-conceived notions about the megastar turned pariah's guilt or innocence.
More than 50 women have publicly accused the pioneering black entertainer of being a sexual predator stretching back four decades. They have made remarkably similar allegations that he fed them sedatives and alcohol that made them unable to resist his advances.
The avalanche of allegations in recent years have seen celebrity pals and millions more malign the legend who attained his greatest fame for his role as a lovable obstetrician and family man in the hit 1980s television sitcom "The Cosby Show."
The actor, who will go on trial on June 5 accused of drugging and assaulting one woman at his home 13 years ago, sat quietly in the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh, on Monday seated in front of his potential jurors.
Dressed in a pale yellow shirt, colorful patterned tie and a tan checkered jacket, he leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin at times, but mostly stared straight ahead in the wood-paneled court room.
The 79-year-old actor faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty. He posted bail of $1 million in the case in December 2015.
Cosby's lawyers succeeded in having jury selection determined 300 miles (480 kilometers) from the Pennsylvania town where the trial is scheduled to begin, arguing it would be difficult to find an unbiased panel in Norristown.
But the scale of that challenge -- as well as finding jurors willing to be sequestered during the estimated two-week trial in Norristown, 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia -- was laid bare Monday.
"Have you heard, read or seen anything about the facts of this case?" Judge Steven O'Neill asked the first group of 100 jury candidates. More than 80 raised their cards.
"Has anyone here formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence in this case?" he asked again. Thirty-four indicated they had. Fourteen said they had preconceived notions that would prevent them from deciding the case fairly.
Fall from grace
Around two-thirds 67 also indicated it would be an extraordinary and undue hardship to be away from home and sequestered for two weeks or more.
Jury selection is expected to last all week.
The criminal trial marks a brutal fall from grace for the once treasured father figure who smashed through racial barriers and delighted audiences with his gentle, self-deprecating humor.
The vast majority of the alleged abuse happened too long ago to prosecute, making the Pennsylvania case the only criminal charge brought against Cosby so far.
He is accused of plying Andrea Constand with pills and wine, and then assaulting her at his Philadelphia home in 2004. At the time Constand worked for the Temple University basketball team.
Cosby says he gave her a pill but insists their relations were consensual.
In a radio interview broadcast last week, Cosby said he did not expect to testify, and suggested racism could have played a role in the scandal.
Legally blind, according to his lawyers, he arrived at court Monday wearing dark glasses and walking with a cane past a throng of reporters, photographers and cameras.
Cosby played Cliff Huxtable, the affable father of an upper middle class black family in New York, in "The Cosby Show" from 1984 to 1992.
It was one of the most popular TV series of all time and jettisoned the actor into a life of fame and millions, following a humble childhood.
His wife Camille has stood by his side.