08.22.11

Judge Drops Strauss-Kahn Charges

At the urging of prosecutors, a Manhattan judge has dropped all charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Christopher Dickey and John Solomon on why DSK may never face his alleged victim in court.

UPDATE Aug 23, 2011 1:45 PM EDT: A New York appeals court denied on Tuesday Nafissatou Diallo's request for a special prosecutor, meaning that a Manhattan judge's order to drop all criminal charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is now official.

The man who was the head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading contender for the French presidency before a hotel chambermaid accused him of criminal sexual assault on May 14, will soon be able to return to his native France whenever he chooses. He may not have been “cleared” (as some French newspapers have suggested already), but he’ll probably never face his alleged victim in an American courtroom.

The district attorney’s explanation for wanting to dismiss the Strauss-Kahn indictment, as stated in a 25-page court filing, raises almost as many questions as it answers about what Strauss-Kahn, 62, did or did not do to the African immigrant maid, 32-year-old Nafissatou Diallo. The prosecutors now argue that they have found so many lies in her account of her background and of what happened immediately after the alleged incident, that they simply no longer trust her. “The nature and number of the complainant’s falsehoods leave us unable to credit her version beyond a reasonable doubt,” they write. “If we do not believe her beyond a reasonable doubt, we cannot ask a jury to do so.”

The physical evidence strongly supports the maid’s claim that she had oral sex with Strauss-Kahn. According to the prosecutors’ filing on Monday, Strauss-Kahn’s DNA was found in three stains on the upper part of Diallo’s maid’s uniform. His DNA also was found on the carpet in his luxury suite at the Manhattan Sofitel. Diallo said she spit out his semen after the alleged attack, and in three of the four samples Strauss-Kahn’s semen appears to have been mixed with her saliva.

The Strauss-Kahn case feels like one of those episodes that’s over for now, but with characters who may well reappear in future seasons.
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Dominique Strauss-Kahn shakes hands after appearing before a judge in Manhattan district court on August 23, 2011 in New York City. ( Richard Drew, Pool / Getty Images)

Diallo was wearing two pairs of pantyhose and a pair of panties the day of the alleged attack. She told police that Strauss-Kahn thrust his hand into them and groped her vagina. His DNA was found on the outer pair of pantyhose.

This was not enough, however, to convince prosecutors that they could convince a jury that this was a forcible encounter.

So, what is the truth?

In this stunning case with major political implications there have been more surprises and reversals than an episode of the TV series Law and Order: A powerful man with a towering international reputation suddenly becomes a “perv” and a “perp” paraded before the staccato strobes of the world press—or is he a martyr set up by shadowy conspirators? The alleged victim, an illiterate African immigrant and single mother, seems to be the model witness and a brave example to women everywhere, only to be transformed from accuser to accused. A new district attorney with a record of losing high-profile cases pursues this one zealously—until it looks difficult to win, then backs out of it blaming the victim’s lack of credibility. The woman’s attorneys, meanwhile, trying to keep the criminal case alive while they put together a civil case that could reap millions of dollars from the wealthy defendant, make lots of headlines, but little headway.

Unfortunately, as loyal fans of Law and Order and its spinoffs certainly know, these judicial dramas don’t always have a happy ending, or even a neat conclusion. The Strauss-Kahn case feels like one of those episodes that are over for now, but with characters who may well reappear in future seasons. And true to form, in the climactic final scene of this show it was the maid’s own lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, who announced in fiery language that District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., had “denied the right of this woman to justice in a rape case.”

Emerging alongside Diallo from a meeting with the D.A. on Monday afternoon, Thompson (a former prosecutor himself) asked, “If the Manhattan district attorney, who is elected to protect our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our wives, and our loved ones is not going to stand up for them when they are sexually assaulted, who will?” Thompson and his partner, Douglas Wigdor, continue to pursue Diallo’s civil suit against Strauss Kahn.

To add injury to the insults, Thompson and Wigdor have also petitioned the court to disqualify Vance and appoint a special prosecutor.

Thompson’s bold and abrasive style has yet to show positive results for his client, but he does have a point. This is a trial in the court of public opinion, to which the elected Manhattan district attorney is not insensible. And in this case, the dueling leaks and letters from the camps of the prosecutors, the alleged victim, and the alleged attacker have been almost as full of detail and innuendo as the presentation of evidence and arguments that, now, most likely never will be heard by a duly empaneled jury.

Many people watching this politically-fraught melodrama already have made up their minds about who’s good, who’s bad, and who’s ugly, and no review of the evidence is likely to change their views. (A glance at the comments on The Daily Beast and Newsweek stories about Diallo gives a good sampling of the vituperation on both sides.) But many of the basic facts, and much of the narrative, of the DSK affair are not really open to dispute, as even the prosecution’s call for dismissal makes clear.

Physical evidence establishes not only that Diallo had a sexual encounter with Strauss-Kahn in Sofitel Room 2806, a “presidential suite” with a rack rate of $3,000 a night, but that the entire incident took place within no more than 20 minutes, and possibly as few as seven, “suggesting the sexual act was not likely a product of a consensual encounter,” the prosectors concede.

Diallo’s account of an attack by a naked man with white hair [Strauss-Kahn], who keeps her from leaving the suite and then forces her to perform oral sex on him until he ejaculates and she finally escapes, is detailed and has remained essentially consistent since she first told it to her supervisors, to Sofitel security, to the police and to trained examiners at the hospital where she was examined the day of the event.

Diallo is larger and no doubt more fit than Strauss-Kahn, but in an exclusive interview with Newsweek in late July she said she was desperately afraid that if she fought back so hard as to hurt this man she would lose her job. Diallo cannot read or write, and her work as a maid at the Sofitel was the only way she could support herself and her daughter. This also would explain why she didn’t bite him as he forced himself into her mouth (a point often raised in public discussions of the case).

One need not accept this narrative, which the maid presents as sworn fact. But there is no other narrative presented as anything more than rumor, suggestion, or speculation.

Strauss-Kahn himself has never given his account to police, to prosecutors, to a grand jury, or to the court, nor is he required to do so. The entire defense strategy, supported by highly-paid private investigators, has been to attack Diallo’s credibility.

In early June, when Diallo herself began to reveal lies she’d told about her background, alarm bells went off at the DA’s office.

Her record as a single immigrant woman living on the edge of American society, and indeed of her own African community in Harlem and the Bronx, makes her an easy target for cross-examination. She lied on her petition for political asylum, which is what allowed her to obtain legal residence in the United States, and the most egregious lie was a well-rehearsed one about a gang rape that never occurred as she described it.

“That she has previously persuaded seasoned prosecutors and investigators that she was the victim of another serious and violent—but false—sexual assault, with the same demeanor that she would likely exhibit in a trial, is fatal,” the prosecutors argue in their filing. She also lied on her income taxes and on her application for low-income housing.

The prosecutors make much of inconsistencies in the maid’s story about what she did after the alleged incident. She changed her story several times about retreating to a hallway, or going to another room to clean it, then returning to the scene of the supposed attack, or perhaps just going to another room that she already had cleaned to pick up her supplies. When prosecutors grilled her about these inconsistencies, they say, she claimed they had misunderstood her or that she had been badly translated, although in fact she speaks passable English.

In her Newsweek interview, Diallo told a story about the immediate aftermath that was consistent with a woman in shock who tried to resume her normal routine, returning to a room she’d cleaned to get her things, then actually thinking she would clean the Strauss-Kahn suite, but finding herself unable to decide where or how to begin.

Prosecutors also say that Diallo lied to them about whether she had ever discussed the possibility of making money off the case. After the fact, a man prosecutors described as her “fiancé”—who was in an Arizona detention center awaiting deportation after conviction on a drug charge—was recorded suggesting to her that she might sue Strauss-Kahn. The exact transcript of that conversation, which took place in her African Fulani dialect, has yet to be made public, but her lawyers insist she did not broach the idea that Strauss-Kahn could be sued.

In any case, as the prosecutors concede in their filing, “there is nothing wrong with seeking money from a defendant in a civil suit.” One might say it’s as American as apple pie. But “the complainant’s disavowal of any financial interest is relevant to her credibility.”

Again, all of these reported discussions took place after the incident.

There is no evidence that there was any premeditated effort to trap Strauss-Kahn in a sexual encounter. And the multiple allegations of his history as an aggressive “seducer” that have surfaced since his arrest, including one criminal case filed against him in France, suggest his alleged behavior in Room 2806 was not totally out of character.

What might be described as the ghost narrative of Strauss-Kahn’s defense, floated by people close to him, suggests that Diallo entered the room and decided on the spur of the moment to perform oral sex on him, expecting money. She did not get any, and, so this theory propounded by DSK’s defenders goes, she took her revenge by making allegations that put her entire livelihood at risk.

In any event, within days, if not hours, of his release, Strauss-Kahn is expected to return to Washington to put his residence there in order and to talk to his former colleagues at the IMF about what happened.

Then he will return to France, where he may no longer be a leading presidential contender, but many people are prepared to welcome him as a heroic victim of a legal system that few French people really understand, even those who are fans of the popular series Law and Order, dubbed into French as New York Police Judiciaire.

David A. Graham contributed to this report.