law & order

The Women Building a Brand on Defending Bad Men

Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

As R. Kelly’s long-awaited criminal trial got underway last week, I was unsurprised to see that the most public-facing of the four defense lawyers representing Kelly was also the lone woman among them. If you are a hugely famous alleged rapist and sex pest with accusers in the double digits, there is an obvious optical advantage to having a woman as the public face of your legal team. Harvey Weinstein had Donna Rotunno, Andrew Cuomo has Rita Glavin, and Bill Cosby had Jennifer Bonjean. And now, R. Kelly has Nicole Blank Becker, a Michigan-based attorney who has used her credentials as a former sex-crimes state prosecutor to build a personal brand specializing in sexual-assault defense.

Of course women have been throwing one another under the bus in the service of terrible men for time immemorial, but still, I am darkly fascinated by women who have made a career out of it. What woman would choose to defend an R. Kelly? The kind of woman who has no compunction with weaponizing her gender for her own advantage, that’s who. Becker and her ilk are bringing the outrage-mongering techniques perfected in the media by the likes of Ann Coulter and Candace Owens to the actual courtroom.

Becker played all the hits in her opening statement at Kelly’s trial, starting with repeatedly referring to the accusers as “girls” and making vague references to forthcoming “drama.” “Groupie, we don’t usually like to use [that word], but it is a word, is an understatement,” Becker said. As if presenting a bold insight, she predicted, “You will add her to the saying, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’” The subtext of this ocean of misogyny: “I’m a woman, so I can say it.”

No high-profile sexual-assault defense attorney has been as straightforward about this devil’s bargain as Donna Rotunno, who defended Harvey Weinstein. “I have the ability to get away with a lot more in a courtroom cross-examining a female than a male lawyer does,” she said in a pre-Weinstein Chicago Magazine interview. As women, attorneys like Rotunno and Becker are assumed to have more instinctive empathy for the accusers, giving their bad-faith, “Well, why didn’t you just leave?” attacks a veneer of objectivity. “He may be an excellent lawyer, but if he goes at that woman with the same venom that I do, he looks like a bully. If I do it, nobody even bats an eyelash. And it’s been very effective,” Rotunno said. During the Weinstein trial, she opined that her cross-examination would just look like two women talking.

Rotunno framed her victim-blaming itself as a sort of perverse, personal-accountability feminism, claiming to be insulted at the implication that women had no agency of their own. She once famously declared that she’d never been sexually assaulted because she’d never put herself in that kind of situation. It’s all very lean-in, Catherine Deneuve, second-wave bullshit, but it has a certain currency.

There are many ways to telegraph one’s womanhood, as with Rotunno’s blowout and smoky eye or Bill Cosby defense attorney Jennifer Bonjean’s elegant gold necklaces and shift dresses. Becker’s website includes several photos of the lawyer “at work” in a white-and-pink office, leaning against a fuzzy accent pillow and confidently filing paperwork in five-inch pumps. “NICOLE IS COMPASSIONATE,” declares one heading in her bio. Highlighting an apparently unique capacity for emotional labor, the text coos, “Nicole understands that facing sex charges doesn’t mean that you are a terrible person.”

Like Becker, Bonjean has also cited a personal history of advocating for victims of sexual assault to bolster her own credibility in working against them later. Her official bio, while less hokey than Becker’s, says her work as a victims’ advocate inspired her to go to law school to change the justice system from within. According to her, this is how she came to defend Cosby in his appeal, as she determined that it was he who was wronged by the flawed system, not his victims. “I have no problem with a just and righteous verdict if you get there a fair way, but when you cheat … there is no righteousness or justice … and that unfortunately is what happened in Mr. Cosby’s case,” she told CNN’s Chris Cuomo (of all people). So according to Bonjean, the original prosecutor’s unilateral decision to protect Cosby from criminal charges was the system working “fairly”?

Meanwhile, Andrew Cuomo’s lawyer Rita Glavin, the last woman standing in his erstwhile shield wall of powerful female aides and allies, expressed utmost sympathy for sexual-assault survivors before insinuating that Charlotte Bennett’s accusations couldn’t be trusted as she’s a survivor herself. “He is deeply saddened that his efforts to help her have now appeared to hurt her. The governor did relate to Ms. Bennett through his experience with his family member who was also a victim of sexual assault, which is why he engaged with her in the ways that he did.” Cuomo, Glavin insists, is the victim of a trial by public opinion and a political smear campaign.

Drawing on one’s own womanhood is a convenient way to credibly blur the lines between victim and perpetrator in a sexual-assault case, rallying real inequities in the justice system to defend those who already benefit most from the imbalance. In exchange, individual lawyers might spark public outrage to build a personal brand as a contrarian, or merely add a high-profile defendant to their portfolio. But unlike media figures like Laura Ingraham or Megyn Kelly who cite themselves as proof that sexism doesn’t exist, the impacts of high-profile defense attorneys making the same calculations are more immediate and profound.

Having prosecuted sexual-assault cases herself, Becker surely knows how rare it is for the accusers to win — according to RAINN statistics, of every 310 sexual assaults reported to police, only 28 result in a conviction and only 25 result in incarceration. And yet, the one through-point in her defense thus far has been that Kelly’s accusers are a pack of lying ex-girlfriends out for revenge. “Blame the victim — that’s the job of effective defense counsel,” writes defense attorney Toni Messina in Above the Law. “And as a woman, that job can be tough.”

And surely, Becker knows the consequences of such an effective defense because, well, who doesn’t? Witnesses are regularly retraumatized by victim-blaming during cross-examination. It is an essential part of recovery for survivors to understand that what happened to them is not their fault, and a harsh cross-examination can dismantle it all, perhaps most impactfully when it’s done by a woman whose real-world experience means she knows the difference between a “real” victim and a liar. Fear of retraumatization and a reasonable belief that their rapist will go free may be one reason so few women report their assaults at all. And, having prosecuted sexual-assault claims for ten years as Becker says she has, she must also be aware of the danger she puts other women in by helping a perpetrator walk free. RAINN statistics also indicate that nearly half of all alleged rapists have at least one prior conviction. And shouldn’t we all know by now that it’s never just one isolated incident?

In the end, even if she loses her case, Becker still gets to advertise that she defended R. Kelly. Another boost to her reputation as a sexual-assault defender. Another opportunity to demonstrate her “compassion.” Yeah, Becker knows exactly what she’s doing.

The Women Building a Brand on Defending Bad Men