Chad Selweski covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. He contributes to Deadline Detroit and blogs at Politically Speaking.
By Chad Selweski
Dana Nessel has enjoyed national media attention as the Democratic candidate for Michigan attorney general tied to the women’s #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct, but her role as a defense attorney presents a much different picture.
The Nessel and Kessel firm boasts online about its successful track record in helping men fight personal protection orders (PPOs) issued by the courts to safeguard a woman who feels threatened or in danger. Nessel, according to the firm’s website, also specializes in getting men removed from the Sex Offender Registry, the state’s public list of those convicted of sex crimes.
What’s more, the Nessel sales pitch tells potential clients facing criminal charges that aggressive lawyering in court can cause a woman’s story about sexual assault or harassment or even rape to be picked apart by using the Nessel and Kessel tactics toward cross-examination of the alleged victim.
The candidate’s bid for attorney general has made the #MeToo movement the centerpiece of her campaign as she vows to crack down on sexual abuse of women if elected. Last fall, the Plymouth Township Democrat gained a flurry of national attention, thanks to a campaign video that went viral, as she provocatively advised voters concerned about sexual harassment to choose their political leaders this way: “The candidate who doesn’t have a penis.”
As a former assistant Wayne County prosecutor, Nessel handled a wide array of cases, including criminal sexual conduct, assault and child sex abuse. In her 13 years as a criminal defense attorney, the Nessel campaign team says that she has stood up for the accused in cases where the prosecution failed to put forward sufficient evidence.
Yet, Nessel’s self-described legal tactics seem absent of a feminist approach as the protector of women.
12-Year-Old Girl Grilled
Among success stories on the law firm’s website is a 2015 case in which Nessel and Kessel won an acquittal for a man accused of raping his 11-year-old niece. The defendant had previously served time two decades ago in a separate case on the same type of charge: first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a child under 13.
In the more recent case, the initial rape trial ended with a deadlocked jury -- an 11-1 vote in favor of guilty. In the retrial, Nessel’s young protégé, attorney Chris Kessel, grilled the alleged victim, who was then 12, on the witness stand. Details of this case are prominently displayed on the website:
“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.”
On Sunday, Nessel will be one of two main candidates seeking the nomination as attorney general attending the Michigan Democratic Party “endorsement convention” in Detroit. Whether the convention favors Nessel or Pat Miles, a former federal prosecutor from west Michigan, the candidate who receives the endorsement will have a big leg up to formally receive the party’s nomination in August and vie for the open AG seat in November.
When asked by Deadline Detroit to respond to some of the cases described on the law firm’s website, the Nessel campaign turned the tables and attacked Miles, claiming that his election team has engaged in a whisper campaign attacking Nessel’s legal career.
“It is both concerning and absurd that Patrick Miles and his team would cast aspersions on Dana's legal work, as Miles himself has never personally prosecuted or defended a case in his entire career,” said campaign spokesperson Angela Wittrock. “There is simply no substitute for actually being in the courtroom; sitting behind a desk just doesn't cut it. Someone who is running for the highest law enforcement position in our state should have a comprehensive understanding of the criminal justice system.”
Still, Nessel talks a different game when promoting her two-person law firm – “Michigan’s top litigation experts” -- compared to her language when talking to the media.
Candidate and Lawyer Seem Different
The PR attempt at luring new clients appears to be at odds with the #MeToo movement (also associated with the #EnoughIsEnough hashtag) that says women victims of sexual assault or harassment can finally come forward, without fear of attempts by men in positions of authority picking apart their stories or portraying them as untruthful and not credible.
In a recent CNN story about four prominent #MeToo candidates nationwide running for state offices, Nessel said: “We're fighting back against the notion that women are something that you can grope, you can abuse or harass, but not to be taken seriously.”
Best known for winning a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 2015 that legalized same-sex marriage in Michigan, Nessel is vying to become the state’s first openly gay attorney general. She is counting on a wave of support from the most progressive delegates, especially women, among the thousands expected at the Sunday convention.
At the same time, her firm’s approach toward defending clients facing various forms of assault charges is this:
“Assault charges are often fueled by emotional and hostile witnesses. More often than not, a verdict will hang solely on the testimony of a complaining witness. (That) means that you need an attorney who is skilled in the art of cross examination, who can force a witness to admit things that may contradict earlier statements, police reports, hospital records, and other witnesses. Other times a case will turn on what the defendant’s intent was during the alleged assault. It can often times be difficult if not impossible to prove what someone’s intent was. At Nessel and Kessel Law, we have the experience needed to persuade a prosecutor, judge, or jury that you did not have the necessary intent to convict.”
I suspect that, in her appearance at the convention, the #MeToo candidate will not mention any of the above comments as she lures support from the crowd.
One top Democratic Party insider said that he sees no way that Nessel can square her #MeToo reputation with the manner that she serves as a defense attorney.
The Nessel law firm’s website makes her a “very easy target” for the Republicans in the general election for attorney general, this party activist said, even while Nessel maintains that she is standing up for those who are unjustly accused of major crimes.
“That works out fine if she’s running for ACLU president,” this source said, “but not if she’s campaigning for attorney general.”