NNPA GUEST COLUMNIST
Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O’Neill, who is presiding over Bill Cosby’s sexual assault trial, has a glaring conflict of interest that has received very little, if any, mainstream media coverage. If justice is going to be served in this case, Judge O’Neill needs to step down immediately.
In 2002, Judge Steven T. O’Neill was appointed to the Montgomery County, Pa., bench and swore on a Bible, held by his wife, Deborah V. O’Neill, to uphold the United States and Pennsylvania constitutions.
Thanked for contributions
Deborah O’Neill has an extensive background in sexual assault research and has even acknowledged her husband and thanked him for his contributions to her research and work.
Mrs. O’Neill holds a doctoral degree in social work and works closely with victims of sexual assault and acquaintance rape. In 2012, as a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, she wrote a 183-page dissertation on acquaintance rape: “Responding to College Campus Acquaintance Rape: Contextual Issues and the Challenge of Inter-Organizational Collaboration.” She spent countless weeks and hours interviewing rape victims and did a study of her findings.
When she received her doctoral degree she wrote, “To Steve, I share this achievement with you. You are my best friend and the love of my life. Thank you for being gentle with my insecurities and robust with encouragement. I could not have done this without you.”
Active in the field
Mrs. O’Neill, is a counselor at the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), a counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania and she’s also the coordinator of the Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention (STTOP) at the same university.
She is listed as a possible affiliate at the Sexual Trauma And Recovery Inc. (S.T.A.R.), a private practice that, “…provides support, education and advocacy to empower all individuals and families affected by sexual trauma.”
Mrs. O’Neill is obviously very passionate and active in her field. Mrs. O’Neill should be able to pursue her own career path independently of her husband, but judges and attorneys know that both real and perceived conflict of interests in the courtroom must be avoided at all cost.
According to Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 2 section B, “Judges should not allow their family, social, or other relationships to influence their judicial conduct or judgment. They should not lend the prestige of their office to advance the private interests of others; nor should they convey or knowingly permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge. Judges should not testify voluntarily as a character witness.”
Can a judge rise above the personal and professional influence of a spouse in a matter like this? Of course one can, but with one of the highest profile cases in decades, it is incumbent on Judge O’Neill to abide by not only the letter, but also by the spirit of the Pennsylvania code of Judicial Conduct.
On the surface, Mrs. O’Neill’s work would not appear to be a problem. However, due to Judge O’Neill’s support of his wife’s career passion and doctoral research about acquaintance rape and sexual trauma, one can legitimately question his impartiality.
It’s unconfirmed if Mrs. O’Neill’s associations, contact or connections with rape organizations and or rape support groups are influencing the judge’s decisions, nor has it been determined, if any of her cases were assigned from Montgomery County Courts or by her husband, but it is a possibility.
That alone seems like a huge conflict of interest, not just for Cosby’s case, but any sexual assault case Judge O’Neill may preside over.
Should remove himself
Judges are subject to certain ethical standards and have a duty to be impartial. The one and only person whose avowed primary duty is to uphold justice and treat Cosby fairly is failing to meet his ethical and legal obligations.
Thus, Judge O’Neill should recuse himself to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in the Commonwealth v. William Henry Cosby, Jr. case.
Kia Soto is a freelance writer, blogger, and self-proclaimed social activist and founder of TattleTailzz.com, a celebrity entertainment website. Jen Vickers also contributed to this column.