By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - A Pennsylvania judge on Monday will begin questioning potential jurors for the rape trial of Bill Cosby, the comedian best known as America's favorite TV dad before dozens of women came forward to accuse him of sex abuse.
Cosby built a long career with a family-friendly style of comedy that peaked when he played father Heathcliff Huxtable in the 1980's hit "The Cosby Show." His reputation began to crumble as he was hit by a series of lawsuits and allegations charging him with drugging and sexually assaulting women in incidents dating back a half-century.
All but one of the cases is too old to be the subject of criminal prosecution, leaving Montgomery County Judge Steven O'Neill with the task of picking the 12 jurors who will determine whether Cosby, now 79, is guilty of sexually assaulting a former Temple University basketball coach at his home in the Philadelphia suburbs in 2004.
Cosby has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, portraying all the encounters as consensual and contending that some accusers aimed to prey on his celebrity to secure large cash settlements in lawsuits.
He said in a radio interview last week that he does not plan to take the stand, meaning that the trial will likely focus on the testimony of accuser Andrea Constand.
Her accusation led to Cosby's arrest in December 2014, days before the statute of limitations on the alleged crime was to expire.
The case has drawn massive media coverage, leading O'Neill to agree to select jurors in Pittsburgh, rather than Montgomery County, where Cosby will be tried starting on June 5.
In making his picks, O'Neill will likely not attempt to find people who have not heard of the case, but simply push for jurors who vow to base their verdict solely on the evidence presented at trial.
"You have the right to a fair trial and an impartial jury," said Douglas Sughrue, a Pittsburgh defense attorney. "A fair trial doesn't mean that people aren't going to know anything about the defendant."
Prosecutors plan to call another accuser, whose name has not yet been made public, to testify about her own allegations of sexual assault, as they strive to bolster Constand's account by showing that Cosby engaged in a pattern of criminal behavior.
Defense lawyers are expected to grill Constand on her credibility, including why she did not report the incident until the following year and why she continued to maintain friendly contact with Cosby.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown)