By Lara Yeretsian
Principal, Yeretsian Law, APC
Imagine the public outrage if a man accused of sexual assault announced to the world he would hold “town hall” style meetings, in part, to educate men on how they can avoid such accusations. Well, that’s exactly what Bill Cosby intends to do following his mistrial in the sexual assault case against him, according to his PR team.
The strategy would never fly with an average defendant, but apparently the rules are different when the man calling the meetings is a Hollywood icon. And the gambit may actually prove beneficial to the disgraced entertainer seeking to salvage his reputation.
Cosby’s sexual assault case ended in a mistrial June 17, when jurors deadlocked on whether Cosby had assaulted former Temple University employee Andrea Constand at his nearby home in 2004. Meantime, Cosby faces 10 civil suits by different women alleging sexual battery or defamation.
So, a platform upon which Cosby could stand as the wise educator predictably elicits an aghast response from many quarters. What is his public relations team thinking? Are they out of their minds? How can a man facing sexual assault allegations from 60 women and a possible retrial in a criminal sexual assault case risk publicly discussing the topic of sexual assault? The last thing he should do is to address the public about this topic.
And yet, from a public relations standpoint, it actually may be genius.
As a criminal defense attorney who has worked on the cases of Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson and other high profile defendants, I have heard of convicted defendants doing educational seminars or motivational speaking as part of their sentence, community service or giving back to the community.
As part of a pre-trial public relations campaign, especially in the case of a defendant denying the allegations, this would be a departure from the usual, however, Cosby’s attorneys said Tuesday that such a tour would be unlikely before his retrial on sexual assault charges in Pennsylvania.
But the more I think about it, the more I see it as potentially inspired. If well scripted and prepared, could these gatherings be used to pre-condition a future jury pool such that the general public becomes more and more sympathetic toward the defendant? If Cosby is not convicted in the future, could the meetings help smooth his tattered legacy?
A June 24 Los Angeles Times article quotes Cosby spokesman Andrew Wyatt in a June 21 interview with a Birmingham, Ala., television station, saying, “This issue can affect any young person, especially young athletes of today. They need to know what they are facing when they are hanging out and partying, when they are doing certain things they shouldn’t be doing. And it also affects, you know, married men.”
But on June 24, Cosby spokeswoman Ebonee Benson appeared to shift the focus of the town hall meetings away from Cosby’s sexual assault trial when she said in an interview with CNN, “When we initially talked about the town hall meetings, it was about restoration of legacy.”
Not everyone buys this motivation, nor looks kindly upon the idea, period.
Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of women’s right group UltraViolet, called the proposal Cosby’s “how to get away with rape and sexual assault” tour.
“When we first heard the announcement that Bill Cosby will be holding a series of town halls this summer to teach people how to avoid being accused of sexual assault—we thought it was a joke,” Chaudhary said in a statement on the group’s Web site. “Turns out, it’s not.”
Regardless, the events will be rife with opportunities for massive missteps, and the prospect of a client speaking publicly about the type of crime the client is accused of committing is a defense attorney’s worst nightmare.
Unless completely scripted, how do you control what a client says at a town hall-style meeting? What if he slips up and says something that can be used against him? Wouldn’t this backfire on everyone associated with him?
The key concept to success here is limiting Cosby’s comments to a minimum, instead having him read a relatively brief, carefully crafted statement prepared by his legal team, then leaving his attorneys and publicists to do most of the actual speaking.
All of which could, in fact, be a most ingenious way for the defense team to get its message across, whether that message is asserting that the complaining witnesses in Cosby’s case are opportunists or that they were consensual participants in the alleged sexual acts.
It also gives the defense team an opportunity to argue its closing statement over and over again before the potential jury pool, even before that jury pool exists.
In other words, as long as the attorneys can limit and control the words spoken by Bill Cosby at these town hall meetings and then use these meetings to precondition potential jurors in favor of Bill Cosby, then maybe they can win this war, since often, cases are won and lost at jury selection.
The first stop on the tour will be in July in Birmingham, Ala., according to an Associated Press story in The Birmingham Times.
Lara Yeretsian, a criminal defense attorney in Glendale, CA is a tenacious advocate whose impressive history includes handling such high-profile clients as James Bond movie director Lee Tamahori and famed rapper Nate Dogg. She was also closely involved with the Michael Jackson alleged molestation case.
By Lara Yeretsian