Talk to most prosecutors and defense attorneys when they're off duty -- and maybe have a couple of drinks in them -- and most of them will admit a simple truth: People often lie in court to try to shape the verdict; defendants often lie; accusers often lie; witnesses often lie; police often lie. The purpose of a criminal trial is to let a jury sift through all the testimony and evidence presented in court -- sometime including lies and deceptions -- and try to discern the essential truth at the heart of the matter: Did the defendant commit a crime beyond a reasonable doubt?
Unfortunately, due to an inexperienced District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. (the son of Jimmy Carter's Secretary of State) wanting to protect his reputation in the press, and a scandal-hungry media anxious to publicize every rumor about both former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the hotel maid who accused him of sexual assault, a jury may never have a chance to decide Strauss-Kahn's guilt or innocence.
Instead, the case has already been tried twice in the scandal-mad media, using strategic leaks from the DA's office and the police: First when DSK was initially arrested, held without bail, and found guilty by the media; second when doubts emerged about the truthfulness of his accuser in other parts of her life, the DA went to the press with the doubts in order to cover his office prior mistakes, and the media is now trying the accuser as a liar, gold-digger, and possibly even a prostitute.
If DA Vance now drops the charges, both DSK and his accuser may end up with their reputations shattered, without a jury ever getting a chance to sort through the evidence in court.
First, when DSK was initially accused, the DA and the media treated him as though he were already guilty, with the DA's office arraigning him in view of media photographers unshaven and looking guilty, indicting him in five days to prevent him from getting bail instead of waiting longer to investigate, and telling the press that his accuser's story was highly credible. Stories came out about DSK previously using his position of power to force sex upon subordinates, and possibly even of trying to rape female reporters. It became clear in the media that DSK was at minimum guilty of being a creep and at maximum guilty of being a rapist.
Second, when doubts arose about the accuser's credibility because she hadn't told the truth in other aspects of her life -- primarily on her immigration application and her income statement to live in low income housing -- before even going to the judge to ask that bail be allowed, DA Vance called in two New York Times reporters to tell them about the accuser's other lies. (To be clear, the DA had a legal obligation to bring exculpatory evidence to the attention of the defense and to the judge. The issue is that he brought it first to the media.) As the Times reported, "As the interview [with Vance] began, but before Mr. Vance was asked a question, he offered an unsolicited defense -- not just of the Strauss-Kahn case, but of his overall stewardship."
By going to the press this way, it became clear that Vance was more interested in protecting his reelection prospects than in protecting the reputation of either DSK or his accuser.
Let's remember, the accuser is a single mother, an immigrant from the dirt-poor African nation of Guinea. The DA's office revealed to the press that the woman had allegedly fabricated statements on her immigration application. She claimed that she had been gang-raped in Guinea. She later told prosecutors that she had only been raped by one man. She allegedly misrepresented her income to qualify for low income housing and she declared a friend's child as a dependent on tax returns, in addition to her own daughter, to increase her refund. After bringing the charges against DSK, she allegedly had a phone conversation with a prison inmate about how she might (in some way unmentioned by the DA to the press) profit financially from the charges. Suddenly the media glare turned to the accuser -- She was a serial liar, a likely illegal immigrant, possibly even a hooker (according to screaming headlines in the Murdoch-owned New York Post, with only the slimmest evidence to back it up).
But none of this is dispositive. It's possible that the hotel maid falsely accused DSK of forcible, instead of consensual, sex. But what would have been her motivation? Having cleaned rooms at the luxury Sofitel Hotel for several years, she would have cleaned the rooms of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wealthy and powerful men. If nothing happened, why would she suddenly have brought charges against DSK, when she had never accused any other hotel guest of sexual mistreatment? Rape victims are often less than pure in every aspect of their life and one of the reasons women are reluctant to come forward with charges of sexual assault, particularly against powerful men with high-paid lawyers, is that they know that every aspect of their life will be raked over in the media and in court. It's entirely possible that the Guinean hotel maid may not have told the truth on her immigration application in order to come to America, not told the truth on her housing application to get low income housing, and not told the truth on her income taxes to get an extra deduction, and still be telling the truth about DSK sexually assaulting her. (I know some artists in New York who've understated their income in order to qualify for low rent in subsidized housing for artists. And how many millions of Americans take an extra deduction on their tax returns? Does that necessarily mean that they're lying if they accuse someone of sexual assault?)
Indeed, in the same New York Times article that detailed accusers unrelated untruths disclosed by DA Vance, the Times quotes an unnamed official in the prosecutor's office
"That an examination of the woman after the alleged assault did find vaginal bruising, but that it was not conclusive evidence of a forcible sexual encounter. The woman's account of what happened inside the hotel suite has been consistent, the official said, aside from minor details of the kind that sometimes vary in the numerous retellings of the same story."
I don't know whether or not Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted the hotel maid. But there seems to be enough questions that his guilt or innocence, as well as the credibility of the maid's accusations, should be decided in court by a jury.
It would be a shame if the New York DA's serial misconduct -- first by overstating its case to the scandal-hungry media, then by telling the media that the accuser was a liar in other parts of her life -- makes it impossible for the case to come to trial.
In that event, two people will have been tried and found guilty in the media, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his accuser. Women will be even more unlikely to come forward in the future to bring charges against men who actually have sexually assaulted them, out of fear that aspects of their life that might not be above criticism will be smeared across the media.
The "truth" will never have been determined by an impartial jury. Instead, both DSK and the hotel maid will both be victims of trial-by-media.