BY DIANE DIMOND
If someone libels, slanders or defames your character, you can sue them. Of course, you’ll have to be able to prove in court how the person injured your reputation or business, and you’ll have to show that what was said was more than just ugly opinion. You’ll have to show the offender made a false statement of fact.
I got to thinking: If everyone is equal under the law, shouldn’t this standard also apply to those high-powered lawyers who routinely throw out defamatory comments while defending their celebrity clients?
Brothers Bola and Ola Osundairo have filed a defamation lawsuit against the attorneys representing television actor Jussie Smollett. You probably remember that Smollett was accused by law enforcement in Chicago of filing a false police report in late January.
Smollett, who is black and openly gay, reportedly told police that while out on a late-night sandwich run, two white men wearing Trump-inspired MAGA hats attacked him by shouting homophobic and racist slurs, splashing him with bleach and looping a noose around his neck. (Smollett later told ABC’s “Good Morning America” he never mentioned MAGA hats but that his attackers declared, “This is MAGA country!”)
The Osundairo brothers came forward to say they were the attackers but that it was all a pre-planned publicity stunt choregraphed by Smollett himself. They explained they had been extras on the TV program “Empire,” on which Smollett played a role, and had staged the hate-crime hoax as a “favor” to Smollett. Sixteen felony charges were filed against Smollett, but in a controversial move, they were later dismissed. Smollett insists he is a victim.
Smollett engaged the top-tier law firm Geragos & Geragos. Its founder, Mark Geragos, and his associate Tina Glandian, went on a publicity drive of their own, calling the brothers. On March 28, Glandian appeared on the “Today” show and went so far as to say the brothers, who are black and of Nigerian descent, may have been wearing whiteface during the attack. In early April, Glandian was on the popular podcast “A Reasonable Doubt” and strongly suggested one of the brothers had a sexual relationship with Smollett.
Less than a month later, the Osundairos filed their defamation suit against Geragos and Glandian, alleging they falsely maligned them “to distract from Mr. Smollett’s farce and to promote themselves.” They claimed damage was done to their reputations, personal lives and acting careers. Homosexuality is a crime in Nigeria, punishable by long jail sentences or even death by stoning, and the brothers claimed the lawyer’s false statements made them fear for their family’s safety back home. The suit also pointed out that many of the lawyers’ ugly accusations came after charges against Smollett had been dropped, so they could not convincingly say they were just doing their job defending a client.
The written response to the defamation suit from Geragos and Glandian may have compounded the problem. They called the lawsuit “comical” and then clearly accused the brothers of fraud. It read in part, “While we know this ridiculous lawsuit will soon be dismissed because it lacks any legal footing, we look forward to exposing the fraud the Osundairo brothers and their attorneys have committed on the public.”
Wouldn’t it be something if this suit were not dismissed? If high-profile, camera-loving attorneys were held accountable for public statements that defame adversaries? It might change the whole tone of the justice system when dealing with headline cases.
Last December, criminal defense attorney Ben Brafman preemptively released emails between his then-client Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and two women who have accused him of sex crimes. Brafman alluded to more emails from other women who may be called to testify at Weinstein’s upcoming criminal trial. Brafman wrote to the judge, “For the most part, these extraordinary emails suggest, beyond question, that many of these women have lied in making their complaints against Mr. Weinstein.” Brafman branded these women as liars. And under the defamation standards, he would have to prove his claim or be held liable, right?
I was in the Florida courtroom during opening statements in the trial of Casey Anthony, who was accused of killing her toddler daughter. Her lawyer, Jose Baez, sought to deflect attention and told the jury that Casey had been sexually abused for years by her father. Yet during the trial, he presented no evidence of that. Could George Anthony have sued for defamation? I’d think so, but he didn’t.
Jurors and journalists need to be on the lookout for these flamboyant lawyers who steamroll over people’s reputations without repercussion or proof. Verdicts should be reached only on the actual evidence presented at trial. Publicity-seeking lawyers who face the cameras first before entering the courtroom in hopes of influencing public opinion aren’t doing their job. Their job is to defend their client in court with the truth.
Rockland County resident Diane Dimond is a journalist, author, and a regular contributing correspondent for the Investigation Discovery channel. To find out more about Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com