This is an excerpt of a column I wrote earlier this week for Deadline Detroit.
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.
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.
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