When the case was formally settled and the final hearing concluded on Monday, Nafissatou Diallo stood serenely in a sixth-floor Bronx courtroom wearing a long-sleeved green blouse, black pants, and gray-and-white, leopard-print head scarf. Her working-woman’s hands flexed once then relaxed at her sides.
“Thank you,” she quietly told the court.
The borough made infamous by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities as a realm of chaos and horrors had in real life delivered a sweet measure of justice where supposedly more civilized Manhattan had failed abjectly.
"I’ve developed a great affection for all of you, and have gotten to know Ms. Diallo through the time that I spent with her,” Judge Douglas McKeon said, sounding like nobody who had ever been a model for Wolfe’s novel. “I want to say what a privilege it has been to work with all of you and to work on this case.”
Diallo had all but despaired of securing any kind of justice after Manhattan prosecutors dropped the criminal case charging Dominique Strauss-Kahn with sexually assaulting her in the Midtown hotel room where her honest labors as a housekeeper had chanced to take her.
The forensic evidence and the timing and the overall circumstances left the investigating detectives with no doubt that Diallo had been attacked.
“Come on, Frenchie,” the detective who took DSK in for booking had said.
But Strauss-Kahn had insisted on his innocence. And the prosecutors deemed Diallo an unreliable complainant.
Never mind that many people lie on their applications for political asylum. Never mind that almost all of us lie at some time about our personal lives. Never mind that witnesses are often inconsistent about the details of a traumatizing attack.
Diallo and her tireless attorney, Ken Thompson, had then turned from the borough where she worked to the borough where she and her daughter had lived since she left her native Guinea. She found at the Bronx County Courthouse a fount of fairness and reasoned justice in the person of McKeon, who serves as the chief administrative judge.
After first ruling that Strauss-Kahn did not enjoy diplomatic immunity, McKeon invited Diallo and her attorney to meet with him in his sixth-floor chambers. They sat around a wooden table and McKeon spoke to her eye to eye.
“It was really more a session of reassurance,” McKeon later said. “She had lost faith in the system. She didn’t think she could get a fair shake. I told her I couldn’t guarantee what the outcome would be but that she would get a fair shake and have an opportunity to say what she wanted to say.”
McKeon was at once judicial and judicious. He spoke with the understanding that this was more than just a lawsuit to Diallo and that events had caused her to grow more cynical than was her nature. He sought to demonstrate in ways big and small what he considers the principles of true Bronx justice in action.
“Giving everybody a fair shake,” McKeon says. “Trying to do the right thing for everyone.”
Diallo initially was resistant to reaching any kind of settlement with a man who acted as if he had immunity that was not just diplomatic but imperial. She only gradually began to trust the judge to guide the case to a fair outcome that would accord her a measure of justice while allowing her to get on with her life.
“I think that the skepticism and the cynicism that she had began to dissipate over time,” McKeon says.
And she increasingly seemed to believe the system actually could work for her. McKeon sought to make her part of the process by ensuring that she was apprised in detail of every development as it happened.
“Keeping her in the loop,” McKeon says.
The result was the settlement that was formally reached at 2 p.m. on Monday. The financial terms were to be kept confidential, but money had not been Diallo’s primary goal.
What Diallo wanted most and what she got was an acknowledgment implicit in the defense’s agreement to settle on behalf of their absent client: Strauss-Kahn had grievously wronged her in that Manhattan hotel room.
Just before the brief final hearing in that Bronx courthouse, Diallo chanced to encounter McKeon’s wife. Diallo’s eyes welled up and silently expressed her gratitude before she actually voiced it minutes later in the courtroom.
Diallo was joined by the lawyers on both sides in thanking the judge. McKeon wished them all happy holidays and retired to his chambers. He is the son of a Bronx county court clerk. He could now speak of what he considered to have been a true Bronx outcome.
“People feel they were treated fairly,” he said.
He sat at the same table where he had sat with Diallo.
“When you sit with somebody and you see that your work has made their life to be changed for the better, it is a very satisfying feeling,” he said.
Where her whole being had once seemed clenched, Diallo left the courthouse at ease right down the fingers of her honest working-woman’s hands. She stood before the news cameras on the courthouse steps wearing a belted black raincoat in a light drizzle. The voice that had held such hurt after the Manhattan prosecutors dropped the case was now a voice of faith restored, Bronx style.
“I thank everybody all over the world and everybody at the court, and God bless you all,” she said.