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Lawyer Faces National Scrutiny While Defending Bill Cosby

Lawyer Monique Pressley accompanied Bill Cosby and lawyer Brian McMonagle at a criminal court appearance in Elkins Park, Pa., last month.
Matt Rourke
Lawyer Monique Pressley accompanied Bill Cosby and lawyer Brian McMonagle at a criminal court appearance in Elkins Park, Pa., last month.

A good attorney in a high-profile case needs to know how to change public opinion. Bill Cosby's attorney Monique Pressley is trying to do just that. Under the glare of public scrutiny, she has been vehemently defending the beleaguered comedian, projecting poise under pressure.

To watch Pressley on TV, you'd never know this is her first time defending a celebrity this big against charges of this magnitude. In broadcast and cable TV interviews, she is unflappable. Talking about Cosby's defamation lawsuit against former model Beverly Johnson, she told MSNBC, "What we're doing now, in a court of law, is requiring people like Miss Johnson to actually prove what they've said. And I would assert to you today, as we did in the complaint, it cannot be done."

When attorney Gloria Allred — who is representing several alleged Cosby victims — challenged Pressley to a debate on MSNBC, Pressley's response was almost scolding. "We as attorneys do what attorneys do. We're not in high school. We don't debate. We're not politicians running for office," she told MSNBC host Thomas Roberts.

Not long after she was hired by Cosby, Pressley talked to Tom Joyner on his top-rated morning radio show. After she explained the ins and outs of the various complaints, allegations and legal charges, Joyner told her, "You know, Monique Pressley, I never heard of you before this, but just listening to you just now, I think Bill Cosby has chosen a very good attorney because you broke that down."

Pressley is media savvy, according to Lolita Buckner Inniss, a former prosecutor and professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. "Monique Pressley does a masterful job of turning the conversation to the message that she and the Cosby defense team want to deliver," says Buckner Inniss.

'You Better Memorize Everything, Because She Already Has'

Pressley is from Galveston, Texas. In high school, she won honors on the debate team. She received her law degree from Howard University in 1997.

Later, as an adjunct faculty member at Howard, Pressley helped make history. In 2005, she coached a team of Howard law students for a mock trial competition. The team won, beating 18 law schools, including the reigning champions from Harvard. The win was a first for a historically black law school.

Atlanta attorney Chris Stewart was a member of the team. "She was tough," he laughs, remembering Pressley's coaching technique. "Who you are seeing on television is exactly who she is. She will talk to you the way she talks in those interviews: Firm. She's not going to play around. She's not going to let somebody misquote her or misquote her client. And you better memorize everything, because she already has," says Stewart.

Pressley was a public defender and an assistant attorney general for the District of Columbia.

Religion's Role In Her Law Practice

Today Pressley runs her own firm. Her personal website says she's also an ordained minister. In 2013, she founded Monique Pressley Ministries. On her radio show, Breathe Through It, her guests have included the prominent religious figure Bishop T.D. Jakes and attorney Benjamin Crump, who represented the families of Trayvon Martin, who was killed in Florida, and Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

TV legal analyst Roland Martin, who has known Pressley for 30 years, says Pressley's faith is deeply important to her. "She comes from a strong faith background. Her godfather was a prominent Catholic priest. So it plays a tremendous role," says Martin.

Strategy In The Cosby Case

Pressley is a regular guest on Martin's weekly legal segment on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. As Pressley tells it, one of Cosby's "loyal supporters" heard her talking about his case on the radio show and suggested he hire her. Martin says, for Pressley, "there is no comfort zone" in this kind of high-stakes, emotionally charged case being played out in the public arena. "In some ways, Monique is on a lonely journey," says Martin.

The decision to hire her is also strategic, says Buckner Inniss.

"Her gender and her race matter, because Bill Cosby is being charged with sexual assault of several women. A large number of those women are white women. I think there's a certain extent to which the idea of racial solidarity plays in here," says Buckner Inniss. "The idea that if an intelligent, well-spoken black woman stands with Bill Cosby on this, then perhaps some of those people who accuse Bill Cosby are lying."

Buckner Inniss urges people watching the Cosby coverage to be skeptical.

She says there will be "an epic demonstration of theatrics and legal performances" from both sides.

Pressley declined to be interviewed for this profile.

This week, Pressley and Cosby had some good news: The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office declined to file criminal charges against him, though he still faces a criminal charge in Pennsylvania and multiple civil suits.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.