'You should be ashamed of yourself': A glimpse into Deshaun Watson’s defense strategy

The legal team for NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson has been aggressively probing the backgrounds of his accusers, including previous criminal incidents, employment records, previous alleged abuse and possible photos that were posted on an adult content site, according to court records obtained by USA TODAY Sports.  

This is all part of Watson’s defense against the lawsuits that brought his NFL career to a halt last year after 22 women sued him and accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.

It’s also a common defense strategy in similar cases – to discredit the accusers and try to poke holes in their claims.

“It can be very uncomfortable, awkward, difficult and stressful for victims to go through litigation like this where the defense is doing everything they can to discredit them, to embarrass them, to shame them and to make them go away,” said David Ring, an attorney in Los Angeles who represents sex assault victims and has been following this case but is not involved in it.

Deshaun Watson is being sued by 22 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions.

In these cases, partial transcripts of pretrial depositions provide details about how Watson's attorneys are defending the Houston Texans star as his football career hangs in the balance.

The women generally accuse him of exposing himself and causing improper touching, often after he initiated contact with them on Instagram to get a massage. At least eight of them also have filed complaints with Houston police that are now part of a criminal investigation into whether Watson committed misdemeanor indecent assault in these cases, according to court records.

His attorney, Rusty Hardin, has denied the accusations and said he expects the pending criminal investigation to conclude by April 1. As of Feb. 14, at least 12 of the 22 women have appeared to testify in pretrial depositions, with more depositions on the way, including Watson’s.

Here is a glimpse into some of them. USA TODAY Sports does not name individuals who allege sexual crimes without their permission.

Online pictures

In a pretrial deposition last month, Hardin tried to show one of the women pictures of herself that he suggested she was using to market herself on Instagram.

“Take your time and look through them,” Hardin told the woman.

“I'm going to instruct her not to answer any questions on these pictures,” replied her attorney, Brittany Ifejika. “We're not even going to talk about this.”

“What do you mean we're not going to talk about it?” Hardin asked.

“I'm instructing her not to answer any questions on these pictures,” her attorney told him.

Hardin also inquired whether the woman ever posted photos of herself on OnlyFans.com, a site associated with pornography and sex workers.

“I'm going to instruct her not to answer that,” Ifejika said.

Ifejika then told Hardin, “You should be ashamed of yourself for trying to bring this in.”

From Hardin’s point of view, he was defending his client by pointing out inconsistencies between how this accuser might have portrayed herself online and how she portrayed herself in her lawsuit against Watson. From the point of view of the woman’s attorney, Hardin could have been trying to shame the woman or suggest she welcomed Watson’s indecent behavior.

“If you are going to accuse me of 'I should be ashamed’ like that on the record, let me ask you this,” Hardin said to Ifejika. “If someone markets themselves in a certain way and then describes in their own petition a totally different way, you don't think these things are relevant?”

“No, I do not think her being sexually assaulted has anything to do with these pictures,” said Ifejika, who works for the Houston law firm of plaintiffs' counsel Tony Buzbee.

Exhibit 33

In another deposition in December, Watson’s attorney tried to ask a different plaintiff about her “lying to improperly receive unemployment benefits, felony robbery charges and violating her felony probation.”

Hardin apparently caught the woman making a false statement in response to a previous written question in the case about whether she had been convicted of a crime in the past 10 years. She had replied in writing then that she had not.

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“You swore to that, right?” Hardin asked the woman.

“Yes,” she replied.

Hardin then showed her evidence that contradicted that sworn statement.

“Would you agree with me that Exhibit 33 shows that you were convicted of a felony on May 22, 2015?” Hardin asked her.

He later tried to explain to her why he was bringing this up.

“I'm not ever going to suggest that because you've had criminal problems in the past, that that means that somehow you couldn't be mistreated by somebody in some other circumstance. All right?” Hardin said to the woman. “I'm not suggesting that because of these difficulties you had, that that somehow means that you could not be wrongly treated by someone, right?”

“Right,” the woman replied.

“But what I am asking you about these questions is, is because if a person is not truthful about some things, then it raises a question about other things,” Hardin told her.

Previous trauma and anguish

In December, Hardin also wrote in a letter to plaintiffs’ attorneys that he was seeking records from a different plaintiff’s therapist and marriage counselor. The woman had testified in a deposition that her ex-husband raped her and physically abused her.

Hardin explained that this plaintiff had made an issue of her mental state in her lawsuit against Watson, claiming she had suffered emotional distress because of it. He said it was then relevant to explore whether other unrelated things in her past could have caused them, which is a common request in cases that allege emotional distress.

But Hardin expressed frustration that in some of these cases, plaintiffs’ attorneys are refusing to allow their clients to answer questions about such topics in depositions.

“There are numerous Plaintiffs who claim to have experienced past trauma and mental anguish unrelated to Mr. Watson — a material issue in evaluating Plaintiffs’ current allegation of mental anguish,” Hardin said in a court document filed this week in Harris County, Texas.

Earlier this month, Hardin even requested a subpoena be issued to a company for another plaintiff’s “employment record, including any and all documents pertaining to her dates of employment, reasons for leaving, attendance issues, internal reviews and observations and leaves of absence while working at (employer)” as well disciplinary actions against her there.

He also requested a subpoena be issued to the same woman’s massage therapy school for similar records.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys noted in court documents this week that their clients have sat for 75 hours of depositions and at times have been subject to questions that are “harassing, abusive and irrelevant.”

Ring, the attorney in Los Angeles, said it’s a case in which two sides “are slugging it out and it’s no-holds barred and anything goes unless the judge says it doesn’t.”

He said the case also appears to be approaching a crossroads nearly a year after it became public with the first lawsuit in March 2021. Since then, Watson’s career has been on hold and these civil cases haven’t moved much beyond disputes over pretrial evidence discovery. But a decision on criminal charges is expected soon, Hardin said.

Up next

Watson also is expected to testify in some of his own depositions soon after a judge this week declined to delay them at Hardin’s request. Hardin had wanted to delay all depositions until after a decision came on criminal charges so his client could avoid making statements under oath that could be used against him in the criminal case.

He suggested he may advise Watson to not answer questions during these depositions for the same reason. The judge ruled nine of the depositions could proceed because they involved women who did not file criminal complaints.

“Despite his efforts, the Court ruled that, at least with regard to the first nine plaintiffs, there will be no more delay," Buzbee said in a statement.

If Watson is charged with crimes in these cases, his trouble would deepen and his attorneys would be expected to put up much of the same type of defense as they have in these civil cases. The civil cases then might be further delayed.

On the other hand, if no criminal charges are filed, he’d only be facing civil cases, which he could try to continue to drag out while his attorneys continue the same strategy against the plaintiffs. His NFL career presumably would resume sooner, though he still faces possible punishment by the league regardless of whether charges are filed.

“That’s his best day,” Ring said. “If they say, 'We’re not bringing any criminal charges at all,’ he’s having a party.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com