Tuesday’s article from Jenny Vrentas of the New York Times takes an unprecedented look at the extent to which Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, communicated with Harris County, Texas prosecutors regarding the investigation and eventual grand jury proceedings arising from the criminal complaints filed against Watson. Based on information obtained from public records requests, Vrentas writes that Hardin commenced a “regular dialogue” with assistant district attorney Johna Stallings in early 2022.
According to Vrentas, Stallings and Hardin “met at Hardin’s office, spoke over the phone 12 times and exchanged more than two dozen text messages” in the two months before ten criminal complaints were presented to a pair of grand juries in Texas.
Hardin called it “a standard practice” for criminal defense lawyers to work directly with prosecutors. The Harris County district attorney’s office did not respond to specific questions from Vrentas about the communications.
Hardin, per Vrentas, “created a slide presentation arguing for Watson’s innocence and gave it to Stallings along with other documents he deemed important.” Watson did not testify before the grand jury.
“We will let our submissions to you on our client’s behalf serve as our presentation to the Grand Jury,” Hardin told Stallings via email.
Attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the 24 women who have sued Watson in civil court — eight of whom made criminal complaints — posted a statement on Tuesday night criticizing the extent to which Hardin and the prosecutor communicated.
“Just so there is no confusion,” Buzbee said on Instagram, “I personally contacted the Harris County DA’s office one time on behalf of the victims to make available to her my clients and any evidence I had collected. My team also did so. They wouldn’t even talk to us! I has no idea that the assistant district attorney was regularly corresponding with Deshaun Watson’s lawyer by email and text; I didn’t know that the assistant district attorney actually went to [Rusty] Hardin’s office to discuss the cases; I didn’t know that Watson’s lawyer provided a PowerPoint that was to be used before the grand jury. I didn’t know, but now know after speaking to the investigating officer under oath, that the police investigation team was convinced that Watson had committed more than ten sexual crimes, or that the ADA has prevented the investigating officers from talking to the women who had filed lawsuits but had not filed criminal complaints. And what I do know is that, of the multiple criminal complainants in Houston, only one was asked by the ADA to appear in front of the grand jury, even though other victims were standing by to do so. As a taxpayer, and more importantly as the advocate for these women, I feel ‘home towned’ in my own home town, and duped. I think the public and all interested were duped as well. Make you wonder. † † † Thank God for the civil justice system.”
Hardin puts much weight on the decision of the two grand juries not to indict Watson. The truth very well could be that Stallings knew that the level of attention Hardin was devoting to the pre-grand jury process was just a glimpse of what she would have to endure if Watson were indicted — and if Stallings then had to develop proof beyond a reasonable doubt for cases that boil down to a series of conflicting versions of events between two people with no witnesses.
Common sense suggests she simply didn’t want to pick a fight that she was convinced she’d lose. With Watson able to afford Hardin and his team of lawyers, who would aggressively defend Watson in every case and drain the resources and test the skills of Stallings and her staff, Stallings may have decided it just wasn’t worth spinning the wheels and eventually experiencing acquittal after acquittal based on the reality that reasonable doubt is much easier to conjure when the evidence is limited to the testimony of a single witness who inevitably would face a withering cross-examination from a skilled litigator like Hardin.
And so, instead of exercising her broad discretion to, as the saying goes, indict a ham sandwich, Hardin apparently made a more measured and balanced presentation aimed at nudging the grand jury away from biting off more than she was willing or able to chew.
The final result? No indictment. All things considered, it’s arguably no surprise.