Attorney: Deshaun Watson lawsuits may have different result than criminal process, trade has ‘chilling effect’

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Two grand juries in Texas declined to bring criminal charges against former Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson who was traded earlier this month to the Cleveland Browns – a deal that has since stirred questions about the organization’s decision to bring him in despite 22 ongoing civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and harassment. 

But a prominent Texas-based criminal attorney who specializes in sexual abuse cases, believes those civil cases will shed light on the victims’ claims. 

Michelle Simpson Tuegel, who has represented sexual abuse and assault survivors in high-profile cases such as the Larry Nassar litigation, told Fox News Digital in an interview Tuesday that she was not shocked by the Harris County and Brazoria County grand juries’ decisions not to bring charges against Watson and that the outcome of those cases will not necessarily be the same in the civil proceedings. 

Deshaun Watson #4 of the Houston Texans looks on prior to their game against the New England Patriots at NRG Stadium on November 22, 2020 in Houston, Texas.
(Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

“A lot of people think ‘well there’s no prosecution therefore these claims don’t hold weight’ and I see in my practice every day that that is not the case.” 

Simpson Tuegel said that around 80% of the victims she represents in civil proceedings have seen no criminal prosecution. She pointed to one of her recent cases in Harris County where the defendant was not charged by a grand jury despite “overwhelming evidence” but the victim in her case was ultimately awarded $44 million in a civil lawsuit.  

“The burden of and the evidence that is required for the civil claim is different.” 

Simpson Tuegel said civil cases could take months and “sometimes it takes years” to play out which could happen in Watson’s situation. 

In the meantime, she expressed concern for the Browns’ and the NFL’s handling of the Watson trade, arguing that it sends a “chilling” message to sexual assault victims.

Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski speaks during a press conference introducing quarterback Deshaun Watson at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus on March 25, 2022 in Berea, Ohio.
(Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

“What we have seen over the years is sadly a repeated pattern of the NFL favoring athletes over and at the expense of victims and I think especially in this MeToo or post-MeToo era, the NFL to some degree is trying to save face by giving the impression that they’re conducting an investigation and so their decisions and his $230 million contract are OK. But I think what’s missed there is this investigation and even in their admission, does not include speaking in depth with the victims.” 

Simpson Tuegel was referring to comments made by Browns’ general manager Andrew Berry who failed to say during Watson’s introductory press conference on Friday whether the organization reached out directly to any of the alleged victims during their independent investigation.

“We as an organization know that this transaction has been very difficult for many people, particularly women in our community, and we realize that it has triggered a range of emotions, that as well as the nature of the allegations, weighed heavily on all of us,” Berry opened the conference by saying. 

“It was really through this five-month odyssey and the information we were able to amass, the reference work, and obviously working through due process and the legal process, that got us comfortable pursuing a trade for Deshaun.” 

But Simpson Tuegel disagrees. 

“I think without that side of this it’s not a two-sided investigation … What they really want to do is keep these talented athletes in their organization making money for them rather than dig into and press pause at least until they can get to the bottom of what 22 different women are saying.” 

She continued: “It has a chilling effect, not just on these women, but other survivors who are looking at this really public case.” 

Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry, left, new quarterback Deshaun Watson, center, and head coach Kevin Stefanski pose for a photo during a news conference at the NFL football team’s training facility, Friday, March 25, 2022, in Berea, Ohio. 
(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Browns fans have been divided over the Watson trade but many have spoken out against it, something Simpson Tuegel says is a sign that “times are hopefully continuing to change.”

“I think it speaks to it being a different time and that, especially the number of women that have bravely come forward and have had to do so in a very public way without being anonymous – that carries weight for a lot of people,” she said. 

“This is not a pleasant process for these women to go through, especially when they’re having to do so publicly and with such a public person connected to it. So I think people are pushing back and Browns fans are standing up speaks to how times are hopefully continuing to change in regard to how we respond to allegations of sexual misconduct, in that the people have the power, the fans have the power to say nothing is more important than the safety of a human benign. Not football games, not money, not winning and the Browns fans standing up and saying that is really admirable, especially some of the public figures who have done so.”

Watson answered multiple questions about the validity of those allegations in his first appearance with the Browns on Friday and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

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