Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been released on his own recognizance and freed from house arrest after prosecutors concluded that his accuser lacked credibility. This raises anew questions in Europe about the American justice system.
The New York Times broke the background story overnight (“Strauss-Kahn Case Seen as in Jeopardy“):
The sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is on the verge of collapse as investigators have uncovered major holes in the credibility of the housekeeper who charged that he attacked her in his Manhattan hotel suite in May, according to two well-placed law enforcement officials.
Although forensic tests found unambiguous evidence of a sexual encounter between Mr. Strauss-Kahn, a French politician, and the woman, prosecutors now do not believe much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances or about herself. Since her initial allegation on May 14, the accuser has repeatedly lied, one of the law enforcement officials said.
Senior prosecutors met with lawyers for Mr. Strauss-Kahn on Thursday and provided details about their findings, and the parties are discussing whether to dismiss the felony charges. Among the discoveries, one of the officials said, are issues involving the asylum application of the 32-year-old housekeeper, who is Guinean, and possible links to people involved in criminal activities, including drug dealing and money laundering.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers will return to State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Friday morning, when Justice Michael J. Obus is expected to consider easing the extraordinary bail conditions that he imposed on Mr. Strauss-Kahn in the days after he was charged. Indeed, Mr. Strauss-Kahn could be released on his own recognizance, and freed from house arrest, reflecting the likelihood that the serious charges against him will not be sustained. The district attorney’s office may try to require Mr. Strauss-Kahn to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, but his lawyers are likely to contest such a move.
According to the two officials, the woman had a phone conversation with an incarcerated man within a day of her encounter with Mr. Strauss-Kahn in which she discussed the possible benefits of pursuing the charges against him. The conversation was recorded. That man, the investigators learned, had been arrested on charges of possessing 400 pounds of marijuana. He is among a number of individuals who made multiple cash deposits, totaling around $100,000, into the woman’s bank account over the last two years. The deposits were made in Arizona, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania.
The investigators also learned that she was paying hundreds of dollars every month in phone charges to five companies. The woman had insisted she had only one phone and said she knew nothing about the deposits except that they were made by a man she described as her fiancé and his friends.
In addition, one of the officials said, she told investigators that her application for asylum included mention of a previous rape, but there was no such account in the application. She also told them that she had been subjected to genital mutilation, but her account to the investigators differed from what was contained in the asylum application.
A related NYT report (“News of Turnaround in Dominique Strauss-Kahn Case Stuns France“) adds:
“This is like a thunderbolt,” said Lionel Jospin, a former Socialist prime minister who is close to Mr. Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund. Before he was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in a New York hotel in May, Mr. Strauss-Kahn had been considered the likely candidate of the Socialist Party to oppose President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s elections.
The charges seemed to draw an abrupt and indelible line across his career and ambitions. He resigned from the I.M.F. and the French Socialists began seeking a new presidential contender. But the calculations all changed when two well-placed law enforcement officials in New York indicated on Thursday that the sexual assault case against Mr. Strauss-Kahn was on the verge of collapse as investigators have uncovered major holes in the credibility of the maid who accused him of attacking her.
The case had forced France into a degree of soul-searching about the treatment of women and seemed to be propelling a new assertiveness among women, opening up a debate about male behavior toward them. Responses to the latest news seemed to suggest that the debate had become less clear-cut in part because of questions about his accuser. “This is a slap in the face of the feminists,” said Marc Marciano, 53, a trader in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb.
Equally, interviews with French people on the street suggested that the idea of a return to political life could also turn out to be divisive.
“People are not going to forgive him. At a political level, he is dead,” said Agnès Bergé, 44, who works for a law firm in Neuilly. “It would be terrible for France if he came and if we give him some credit again.” But Sophie Leseur, 50, an artist, said the saga could turn Mr. Strauss-Kahn into a “martyr.”
“His reputation is tarnished forever,” said Marie Chuinard, 25, a legal advisor. “I think he can come back to French political life but internationally he is burned.”
CBS (“‘Seismic changes’ to case against Strauss-Kahn“) added an obvious point:
“It’s not at all unusual for defense attorneys to attack the credibility of alleged witnesses in a case – you see it all the time. It is very unusual to see the prosecution questioning the credibility of their own witnesses, especially in a case as high profile as this,” CBS News legal analyst Jack Ford said on “The Early Show.” “When you have that coming from the prosecution side as reportedly it is here, that means there’s some possibility for some seismic changes in the case.”
As FT’s Gideon Rachman observed,
If this were a novel or a TV mini-series, the next step would clearly be for him to return to France, a vindicated man, and to be swept to the presidency. However, reality is likely to be a bit more complicated. Le Figaro are running a poll of their readers, asking whether DSK could yet become president – by roughly two-to-one, they feel that the answer is No. And that, surely, must be where the odds lie.
DSK’s defence team do not dispute the idea that there was a sexual encounter with the chamber-maid. Now, of course, there is a world of difference between rape and consensual sex. And the French are famously tolerant of the sexual adventures of the powerful – and strong believers in the right to a “private life”. But still, Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour might strike many voters as not particularly presidential or dignified for a future head-of-state. And a lot of collateral information has come out about DSK in the course of this affair, which doesn’t look good – allegations of a pattern of sexual harassment in particular.
After hours of pundit speculation, the second shoe dropped, with Strauss-Kahn’s release late this morning. CNN:
A New York judge released former International Monetary Fund Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn on his own recognizance Friday, following serious credibility issues with the woman who accused him of sexual assault.
The case has changed dramatically but prosecutors said “we are not dismissing the case.”
Strauss-Kahn’s release significantly eases the extraordinary bail conditions that had been previously ordered. He had been released from jail on $6 million bail but was under house arrest in a luxury townhouse in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood.
Prosecutors have raised credibility issues so grievous that incontrovertible DNA evidence of sexual contact recovered from Strauss-Kahn’s hotel suite may not be enough to overcome them, a source familiar with the case told CNN. They were expected to notify the court Friday of the credibility issues which could collapse the felony case.
While public figures, especially wealthy and powerful ones like Strauss-Kahn, have all manner of advantages in the American legal system, they also have the distinct disadvantage of the spotlight, where gossip and rumor passes for news and a rush to judgment occurs, often before formal charges have been filed. Ray Donovan’s famous question, “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?” remains valid.
Now, in this case, the former reputation was quite likely undeserved. Strauss-Kahn is almost certainly a world class cad even if it’s unlikely he’s a rapist. Then again, had the chambermaid simply gone to the tabloids and claimed to have had consensual sex with the IMF director, it wouldn’t have been Topic A for the news media for days on end.
I share some of the concerns raised in Europe, particularly in France, about the way Strauss-Kahn was treated by the American system. Aside from the media circus, which is largely outside the control of the authorities, such features as the “perp walk,” where arrests are made publicly and the accused paraded in front of cameras for maximum embarrassment and prejudicial effect on the potential jury pool is especially cringe-worthy. Additionally, incarcerating those merely accused of crimes at Rykers Island and other ghastly facilities is problematic. But this case showed, too, the positive side of American justice. It was, after all, the prosecutors themselves who divulged the evidence that undermined their own case and swiftly took it to a judge to minimize the harm done to the man in custody.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.