It was only a month and a half ago that cocktail party chatter was suddenly dominated by the sodomy and attempted rape accusations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Despite the case's inchoate posture, we quickly knew many of the supposed details. Thanks to a notoriously tabloid-like newspaper we learned that the accuser, a maid at the luxurious Sofitel hotel, was supposedly a young widow and single mother who lived with her daughter in housing reserved for HIV-positive adults. She was said to be from Guinea. Reporters went so far as to track down her relatives, who were said to be so unsophisticated and off-the-grid that strangers from the media could only attempt to explain to them the level of power enjoyed by the man who now stood accused by their niece and cousin.
Sadly, we have learned to take with a grain of salt the well-spun stories we are told by reporters who purport to know the human stories behind the news. This time around, though, story time wasn't coming only from the human-interest writers. The District Attorney's Office made sure the public received a specific version of events.
Immediately after his dramatic arrest from an airplane at JFK, they described a man in such a rush to flee the hotel that he managed to leave his cell phone behind. They stated without explanation or detail that they had heard from "more than one" other woman who also claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Strauss-Kahn. They summarily declared that the defendant had "a propensity for impulsive criminal conduct." News of a DNA match was leaked by law enforcement sources.
When defense attorneys teased that they had evidence that would "gravely undermine" the accuser's credibility, prosecutors vouched not only for her credibility but her character. Her version of events contained "powerful details" and had been "constant and unwavering." To suggest that sexual activity with this hardworking, conservative Muslim widow was consensual was utterly ridiculous.
That was a mere six weeks ago.
Now the cocktail parties are still abuzz about DSK but fueled by altogether different headlines. The case is "teetering." The defendant has been released.
And still the prosecutors are talking. In a letter to defense lawyers and the court, they detail the weaknesses of their own case. The complainant did not, as she said, wait in the hallway after the alleged attack; she cleaned two rooms (including the suspect's) before reporting the incident.
She lied in her application for asylum.
She lied about her income. She lied about the number of children she supported. She lied about the number of cell phones she has.
It has all made for a stunning turnaround -- good for the media, great for cocktail party chatter.
But we shouldn't know any of it. Here's the thing about criminal cases -- especially rape cases. You look at them from one angle, and the government has a slam dunk. You look from another, and reasonable doubt starts popping up. That's why we have juries and judges. Even in our rough and tumble system where the vast majority of cases don't go to trial, it's why we have discussions between counsel and plea negotiations.
Cy Vance and his assistants are saying they still believe they have evidence to back up the charges against Strauss-Kahn, but that recent discoveries could make the case difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. That acknowledgment already got the defendant sprung from house arrest. More important, it's clearly a precursor to a dismissal of the case or a sweetheart plea agreement.
The prosecution probably blames the victim for the case's current predicament. But a flawed witness makes for a fairly typical sexual assault case. Seasoned prosecutors will tell you that rape cases are hard. Victims aren't perfect. They might have lied in the past. They might even lie about some of the details of the incident at issue if they think it's necessary to have their accusations treated seriously. They may have criminal records and unsavory friends. They may see money at the end of the tunnel. And sometimes the cases unravel so much that you conclude that the original charges cannot stand.
When I was a prosecutor, we were told never to try our cases in public. The rules of ethics prohibit a prosecutor from stating her personal beliefs about a defendant's guilt for a reason. Bland, neutral statements make for boring news, but that's sort of the point. Cases get resolved through plea or trial. The details can come out later.
If we had never been assured how strong the case was against Strauss-Kahn, we wouldn't be stunned by the most recent news. We might infer that the government's case had problems if the defendant's release status changed. We would learn the strength of the case at trial. Even at a guilty plea, a less formal hearing would give a preview of the state's evidence. An outright dismissal of charges in a high-profile case would likely be accompanied by a public explanation. This is how cases are handled, and shades of gray are typical in sexual offense cases.
But this case was never typical. The departing flight forced police to make an arrest earlier than they might have liked. Prosecutors successfully opposed bail, shortening their time line to seek an indictment. And now there has been an apparent change of heart: where prosecutors initially saw their victim as Mother Teresa, they now see her as a potential shakedown artist.
That may seem like a big deal. It is. But if prosecutors hadn't said so much in the beginning about how strong their case was, they wouldn't be scrambling to say so much now.
The "stunning reversals" in the Strauss-Kahn prosecution make for fascinating news, but we the chatting public never should have known about them.