DSK and the District Attorney
July 6, 2011
It should have been no surprise to hear that the career and reputation of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. had sustained a deadly blow as a result of revelations that the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn had collapsed. The DA had, after all, conducted himself in an unusual way. He had recognized quickly that the accuser’s credibility was in shambles, that the accused might well not be guilty as charged—and he had made this recognition public. No small shock in a society accustomed to prosecutors whose instant response to the discovery of facts that undermine their case is to dig in all the more aggressively—recall the Duke University lacrosse case, or the notorious child abuse cases of the 1980s—with assurances that the case against the accused is stronger than ever.
Such shocks produce predictable symptoms. In a roundtable discussion on NY1 News Sunday morning, a member of the New York Times editorial board declared that she had been worried all along that something might happen to this prosecution because, so often, the women bringing charges in these cases are, like DSK’s accuser, “not perfect.” In a just world—or, more to the point, in the hands of a proper prosecutor, we were to understand—the accuser’s lack of perfection wouldn’t undermine her case.
The not perfect accuser in question had, of course, told lie after lie—among these her false claim to immigration authorities and to the DA that she had been gang-raped in her home country, Guinea. Her claim that she had immediately reported the rape by Mr. Strauss-Khan turned out to be untrue as well: Records showed that after the encounter with him she had paused to clean a few rooms.
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Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.
.There was an apparent habit of fraudulent practices, among them her inclusion of a neighbor’s child as a dependent so as to obtain a larger tax refund. Were this not enough, there was the phone call she made the day after her reported attack to her imprisoned drug-dealer boyfriend. In that call, automatically recorded—as she apparently didn’t know all outside calls to prisoners are—she told him not to worry, that DSK was rich, and she knew what she was doing. Contrary to her assertion to the DA that her only income came from her Sofitel cleaning job, investigations turned up deposits to several bank accounts in her name, totalling nearly $100,000 in cash.
For having uncovered and publicized the reasons not to trust the accuser in this case, Mr. Vance deserved praise. Instead, he found himself the target of attack. He had had the backbone to step back, rather than go blithering on about the strength of a case he and his staff discovered to be suspect. He got, in return, the weekend’s torrent of pompous media meditations on his failures as a district attorney.
In the criticism leveled at him, there is mention of the fact that the DA removed the Strauss-Kahn prosecution from the hands of the Special Victims Unit, prosecutors of famously exceptional zeal specializing in crimes of sexual assault, as those acquainted with their work know. Whatever impelled Mr. Vance to put the Strauss-Kahn case in hands other than those, it was on every count a wise move.
It’s hard to overstate the value of this highly public example of a prosecutor’s office prepared to throw over a sex-crime case of this magnitude—one involving an alleged perpetrator as famous, and also tarnished by rumor, as DSK. No such tarnish or suspicion thereof was initially evident, recall, in the history of the accuser—one reason for the credibility the DA originally gave to her charges.
It didn’t hurt, needless to say, that rape is a crime in which the accuser’s privacy is deemed so sacrosanct that it is forbidden to publish her name. In addition to all that such shows of protectiveness add to the pre-judgment of a case, concealing the name of the accuser provides certain benefits—all to the prosecution. Publishing the name can result in witnesses coming forward with character testimony or other information that casts doubt on the complainant’s veracity. In this case, the prosecution found its own way to such doubt.
The district attorney’s critics charge that Mr. Vance, who has lost a few cases recently, didn’t want another failure—that he publicized his doubts and blew his case up rather than take that risk. Perhaps. But everything about this accuser and her complaint also suggests the very good chance that the DA could have won the case. Mr. Vance surely knew this, as well.
A zealous prosecutor could have—would have—exploited the racial element here, and the enormous status difference between the wealthy and powerful foreigner and the poor hotel worker. He could have counted on the weeks of vilification by the media, which had helped make Mr. Strauss-Kahn so hated a figure he could find no Manhattan apartment building whose upscale residents were willing to breathe the same air as this (now former) head of the IMF. A prosecutor could count on finding a jury so hostile to the accused, so sympathetic to the accuser, that they could understand—with the help of explanations—all her lies and her involvement with a drug dealer.
That prosecutor would have delivered a familiar message to the jury: Believe the accuser, however incredible, or be guilty of betraying the war against sex abusers and of violating the victim anew. Critics of the DA’s decision to remove the case from the Special Victims Unit indeed point out that the unit’s prosecutors would have had the expertise to deal with an accuser who was, like this one, “not perfect.”
That the man now in charge of the Manhattan DA’s office knows—and has shown that he knows—that the duty of a prosecutor is first and foremost to do justice, not to win cases, is something for which citizens can be grateful. They’ve not had a chance to witness such behavior terribly often.