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Deshaun Watson Invokes Fifth Amendment in Sexual Misconduct Depositions

HOUSTON — Deshaun Watson, a star N.F.L. quarterback who has been accused by two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage appointments, sat down for the first time for depositions in two lawsuits in his lawyer’s office on Friday morning.

He entered and exited unseen by the half-dozen or so media members camped outside of the downtown skyscraper that houses the office of his lawyer, Rusty Hardin, who had previously said the deposition would be a “worthless exercise” because he advised Watson to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Tony Buzbee, a lawyer for the 22 women who have filed civil lawsuits against Watson, said that Watson did indeed cite his Fifth Amendment right during the two depositions, each of which lasted about 90 minutes. Buzbee estimated that Watson responded to 150 questions or more by citing his Fifth Amendment right. The women who filed these two civil cases did not submit criminal complaints against Watson.

While Watson was being deposed, a perhaps even more consequential development in the case was taking shape about a mile away, at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. There, prosecutors were presenting evidence to a 12-person grand jury on Friday. The grand jury was expected to meet for most of the day and to consider criminal charges against Watson.

“Nothing we did today has anything to do with what is going on at the criminal courthouse,” said Buzbee.

The 10 criminal complaints filed against the Houston Texans quarterback Watson last year described a range of actions including his exposing himself, purposely touching therapists’ hands with his penis and three claims of sexual assault. Multiple women who filed criminal complaints were at the courthouse ready to speak with the grand jury about their interactions with Watson if called upon by prosecutors. The plan by prosecutors also included presenting the videotaped interviews these women did with police, Buzbee said.

Hardin did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment.

Almost exactly one year ago, Ashley Solis, a 28-year-old licensed massage therapist, filed the first lawsuit against Watson, saying that he purposely touched her hand with his erect and exposed penis during a March 2020 massage appointment at her home. Over the ensuing weeks, similar allegations against one of professional football’s brightest young stars piled up at a stunning pace.

Watson has denied any wrongdoing, and Hardin has said any sexual acts that happened during massage appointments were consensual. Hardin said earlier this week that he was “delighted” the grand jury was set to make a decision about whether Watson would face criminal charges, and confidently asserted that he did not believe his client would be charged.

The fact that a grand jury decision, which is not a determination of guilt or innocence, held such importance for those involved reflected the stakes of the case. The women who spoke with the grand jury on Friday wanted their accounts of misconduct against a star athlete to be taken seriously. And Watson has sought not just to be cleared of wrongdoing, but to position himself to be traded from the Texans in order to resume his N.F.L. career with a different team.

The N.F.L.’s free agency period opens on March 16, the day the league’s new year starts.

Watson, one of the N.F.L.’s best young quarterbacks, has not played in a game since the final week of the 2020 regular season. Disenchanted with the Texans after a desultory 4-12 season amid front office dysfunction, Watson requested a trade. But the effort to resolve the rift between Watson and the franchise took a back seat to the avalanche of lawsuits filed last March that accused Watson of sexual misconduct.

Since then he has been in N.F.L. limbo. The league opened its own investigation but did not opt to punish Watson or sideline him, in part because he had not been criminally charged.

The Texans said in a statement last March that they would “continue to take this and all matters involving anyone within the Houston Texans organization seriously” and that the team would not comment further until the league’s investigation had ended, a process with no public timeline.

Watson participated in the team’s training camp held last summer, at risk of being fined $50,000 per missed day. The Texans chose to leave him on the inactive list for the entire 2021 season, moving forward with Davis Mills and Tyrod Taylor as their quarterbacks, again winning just four games.

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Houston.

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