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Truth Squad: Republicans attack Dana Nessel for firm’s defense on sex crimes

New Truth Squad rating categories

Truth Squad has reduced the number of rating categories to the following:

  • FAIR: The ad or statement is generally accurate and fairly and credibly presents the speaker’s position on the issue at hand.     
  • MISLEADING: While individual parts of the ad or statement may be accurate, it reaches a conclusion or leaves an impression about an issue or candidate that is misleading in important respects
  • FOUL: The ad or statement contains one or more material factual errors

Michigan Democratic attorney general candidate Dana Nessel is blasted for having worked at a law firm that defended accused sex offenders in a television ad paid for by the Michigan Republican Party.

Misleading images and a blatant disregard for the role of defense attorneys earn the ad a rating of foul. The ad is on stronger ground attacking the crass-marketing tactics used by Nessel’s former firm to win the business of accused child rapists.   

THE CLAIMS

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The 30-second ad begins with shots of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Larry Nassar along with Nessel, with a narrator asking:  

“Who is still protecting the sex abusers? Dana Nessel’s former law firm specialized in letting men get away with the most heinous acts. They once questioned a young victim’s memory in order to get their client found not guilty of molesting a five-year-old girl. They bragged about preventing sex crime charges and worked to convinced judges to drop protective orders. Instead of holding criminals accountable, Dana Nessel defended them. We deserve an attorney general who is fighting for our families, not the criminals.”

On the screen are the words, “Dangerous Dana Nessel.”

FACTS

Sexual assault has received greater attention in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and with the high-profile cases of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, TV and comedy legend Bill Cosby, and Larry Nassar, the Olympic gymnastic team doctor and physician at Michigan State University who sexually assaulted hundreds of young athletes.

Nessel and her law firm had nothing to do with defending those three people. So why are they in an ad about Dana Nessel?

Sarah Anderson, deputy chief of staff and communications director for the Michigan Republican Party, told Truth Squad the images of Weinstein, Cosby and Nassar are in the ad because “they are well-known sex abusers,” and Nessel’s law firm has defended accused sex abusers.

Anderson also said the case cited in the ad was taken from Nessel’s former law firm’s own website.

That website has since been taken down and Nessel left the firm in May to run for attorney general). The new site, chriskessellaw.com, lists only Nessel’s former law partner Chris Kessel, and does not include the case example listed in the ad.

A report by Deadline Detroit in April, though, describes a similar case discussed on the website of what was then the Nessel Kessel law firm, about cross-examining a 12-year-old girl on alleged sexual abuse:

“Chris Kessel carefully and meticulously took apart the complaining witness’s story, piece by piece … Cross-examining a 12-year-old girl about an alleged rape is not something you learn overnight. It is something you learn with countless hours of study and experience. Criminal sexual conduct cases are not cases that just any attorney can handle. It takes an experienced criminal defense attorney, who knows what buttons to push and when to push them, to successfully defend against this type of charge.”

The Nessel campaign did not dispute the story of the court case recounted in the TV ad, instead referring to a statement Kessel released to the media in May that stated it was he, not Nessel, who handled the sex assault case and who had written the post about the case on the firm’s website.

“None of these cases had anything to do with Dana Nessel, in any way,” Kessel wrote. “She had nothing to do with representing any of these clients, in any way.”

CONCLUSION:

The Republican attack ad tries to stoke fear, while seemingly questioning one of the fundamental principles on which the United States was founded: that anyone charged with a crime, even the most heinous, deserves a full-throated defense. That’s what defense attorneys do.

Some Michigan voters may not want to support an attorney whose firm defended people accused of sex crimes, even if that attorney wasn’t personally involved in the cases. But defense attorneys play as vital a role in our judicial system as prosecutors and judges.

It’s also worth noting the ad never clarifies that Nessel did not represent the unholy trinity of Weinstein, Cosby or Nassar. To the contrary, near the end, it runs their photos a second time as the narrator says, “Instead of holding criminals accountable, Dana Nessel defended them.”

And the characterization that Nessel’s firm specialized in “letting men get away with the most heinous acts” ignores that defendants are not considered criminals until pronounced so in court. So there is no factual basis these men “got away” with anything.

The use of images of infamous sex abusers with no connection to the Democratic candidate, and the assertion that defense attorneys side with criminals over citizens, earns this ad a call of foul.

The ad would have been on firmer ground had it limited its criticism to the almost gleeful way Nessel’s former firm marketed legal services to accused offenders. Its website bragged of the firm’s ability to “know what buttons to push” to discredit young accusers.

Whether or not Dana Nessel actually litigated these cases or wrote the web postings is beside the point. Nessel, who has cloaked her campaign in the #MeToo movement, used the firm’s website to aggressively promote its talent for picking apart the testimony of children. Republicans are well within bounds to point that out to voters.

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