Pluses and Minuses of a Robust Crisis Defense

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Prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz' aggressive denial of sexual charges is a case study of how to mount a robust crisis defense — and the pitfalls of such a defense.In a crisis, sometimes a great defense is the best offense. There is no better example of that approach than Alan Dershowitz' denial of accusations that he engaged in sex with a teenage girl.

Dershowitz, along with British Prince Andrew, has been implicated in a court filing as having sex with an under-age girl. Both have denied the allegations, but Dershowitz has gone far beyond a simple denial. He has volunteered to appear on TV shows to make declarative statements, offer evidence of his innocence and challenge his accuser to make her claims in a public forum, not just in a court filing.

The robust defense mounted by Dershowitz, who is a Harvard law professor, should be a case study for what an aggressive response to a crisis looks like. Here is what his approach teaches: 

Make your denial in person. Dershowitz didn't just write a statement denying his guilt, he sought a public forum to express his innocence. He was willing to give the charge greater exposure on a major TV talk show in order to give the same exposure to his denial.

Make your denial specific. Dershowitz didn't hem and haw. He categorically denied knowing or ever meeting the young woman making the charges. He offered specific references to where he was and who he was with the two times identified by the woman who alleged she and Dershowitz had sex. He admitted flying in an airplane owned by billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, but says he never saw improper behavior by Epstein.

Take on your accuser directly.  Dershowitz, who is a prominent attorney, challenged his accuser to appear publicly and repeat the allegations made in her court filing. He said she hasn't out of fear he will file defamation actions against her for telling lies about him.

The Dershowitz defense is also illustrative as to its potential pitfalls.  Being public, specific and in-your-face is like an open invitation for people to debunk your claims. And that is happening.

Ed Whelan, writing for the National Review, says Dershowitz' denials don't exactly match up with the accusations. They leave room, he suggests, for both the denial and the accusation to be true. 

Nick Bryant, posting on Gawker, is even more aggressive in describing how close Dershowitz was with Epstein, an admitted pedophile. Bryant says Epstein's private jet was essentially a flying sex parlor and Dershowitz was a frequent passenger.

Dershowitz has been ensnared in crisis before. He engaged in a running academic battle with Norman Finkelstein over claims made by Dershowitz in a book, which Finkelstein also alleged contained plagiarized sections. In this matter, Dershowitz also offered a robust defense, including a threat to sue for defamation.

The lesson from all this is that going on the offense to defend your reputation should be based on solid facts, irrefutable validation and an eyes-wide-open understanding that just because you say something doesn’t mean that everybody will believe it. Be prepared for antagonists or skeptics to rummage around in your past to find hints or evidence that you are guiltier than you admit.

Dershowitz' denials in this case have won him more than shadow of doubt. Many believe he is innocent because of the firm, specific and direct ways he has confronted his accuser. But if shadowy facts cloud his story, Dershowitz will have risked an even greater fall. There is more forgiveness for a misstep than for a deliberate misdirection.