HOUSTON (AP) — A grand jury on Friday began considering evidence gathered during a police investigation of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

The start of the grand jury’s work came on the same day that attorneys for 22 women were set to begin questioning Watson during depositions that are part of lawsuits that they filed against him last year.

The women allege in their lawsuits that Watson exposed himself, touched them with his penis or kissed them against their will during massage appointments. One woman alleged Watson forced her to perform oral sex.

Rusty Hardin, Watson’s lead attorney, said he welcomed the grand jury and hoped it would decline to indict the NFL star. Watson and his lawyers have denied the accusations. His lawyers have said “some sexual activity” happened during some of the massage appointments but that he never coerced anyone.

The first lawsuit against Watson was filed last March. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office was presenting evidence and testimony to the grand jury from a Houston police investigation that began in April 2021 after a criminal complaint was filed. The FBI had also been reviewing the allegations against Watson.

Ten women have made criminal complaints against Watson to police, according to Tony Buzbee, the main attorney for the 22 women who sued. Eight of those 10 women are represented by Buzbee and they have been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury on Friday, he said.

“They will gladly be there,”’ Buzbee said.

At the same time the grand jury was meeting at the Harris County criminal courthouse in downtown Houston, Buzbee led the deposition of Watson about a half mile away at the offices of Hardin’s law firm.

Hardin said that Watson will invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Watson will not answer questions in a deposition until the grand jury makes a decision, Hardin said.

The questioning of Watson by Buzbee was expected to last 45 to 50 hours over several days.

Most of the women who sued have already been deposed by Watson’s attorneys. No civil trial date has been set for the lawsuits.

“My view is that if you did nothing wrong and are innocent, you should not be worried about incriminating yourself,” Buzbee said. “My clients didn’t plead the Fifth. Instead, they courageously testified under oath about what Deshaun Watson did to them.”

Watson’s lawyers have sought to balance their defense of the NFL star while simultaneously condemning sexual violence against women.

They have called the lawsuits against him a “money grab” and claimed that all 22 women who have filed suit are lying — a strategy some experts and advocates say relies on long-used tropes designed to minimize such accusations. Buzbee has said some of his clients have faced criticism and even death threats.

Even before the lawsuits were first filed, Watson had asked to be traded. The trade request and the lawsuits kept Watson out all last season.

The Texans were expected to try and trade Watson this offseason.


Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

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