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How Fairly Were Strauss-Kahn, Diallo Treated by Justice System?

August 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
New York judges on Tuesday dropped sex Crimes charges against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and denied a request seeking a special prosecutor. Ray Suarez discusses how the case was handled with former federal prosecutor Allison Leotta and Christopher Kuntz, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: And now to the outcome of the high-profile criminal case that attracted international attention. The case itself may be coming to an end, but questions about how it was handled continue.

Three months after he was arrested on charges of sexual assault, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was greeted with boos when he arrived at a New York City courthouse this morning. But inside, the former head of the International Monetary Fund got some good news. The sexual assault charges against him had been dropped.

Prosecutors asked state Supreme Court Judge Michael Obus to drop the charges because, they said, the defendant’s version of what happened wasn’t credible.

JOAN ILLUZZI-ORBON, Manhattan assistant district attorney: Whatever the truth may be about the encounter between the complainant and the defendant, our inability to believe the complainant beyond a reasonable doubt means that we cannot, in good faith, ask the jury to do that. And so we arrive at the recommendation that we made here today.

RAY SUAREZ: Moments later, the judge formally ordered the dismissal of all charges. The case began in May, when Strauss-Kahn was pulled off a plane and arrested after a hotel maid at the Sofitel accused Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting her when she arrived to clean his room.

Defense attorneys asserted all along that any sexual contact was consensual. But the case began to unwind when prosecutors reportedly lost faith in the accuser, Nafissatou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea. In July, prosecutors said she told inconsistent versions of events following the alleged attack, and made a number of false statements about her past, including an apparently phony account of a past gang rape in Guinea.

NAFISSATOU DIALLO, accuser: I want justice. I want him to go to jail.

RAY SUAREZ: As it became clearer that the Manhattan district attorney was likely going to drop the case, Diallo went out to speak to reporters to plead her case.

NAFISSATOU DIALLO: I have made a mistake, but this man tried to rape me.

RAY SUAREZ: After today’s ruling, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer said the decision was the right one.

BENJAMIN BRAFMAN, attorney for Dominique Strauss-Kahn: This is a horrific nightmare that he and his family have lived through. You can engage in inappropriate behavior, perhaps, but that is much different than a crime. And this case was treated as a crime, when it wasn’t.

RAY SUAREZ: But Diallo’s lawyer criticized the district attorney for deciding to drop the charges, and vowed to push forward with a civil case.

KENNETH THOMPSON, attorney for Nafissatou Diallo: Could an immigrant woman from Africa come to this courthouse and get justice when she says a powerful, wealthy man attacked her? Apparently, the answer is no. But we will stand by Ms. Diallo to the very end.

RAY SUAREZ: Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance was about to talk to reporters about the case when he was interrupted by the East Coast earthquake. Strauss-Kahn himself addressed the media outside the townhouse where he stayed this summer.

DOMINIQUE STRAUSS-KAHN, former International Monetary Fund chief (through translator): It’s the end of a terrible and unjust ordeal. I am relieved for my wife, my children, my friends, all those who supported me during this period. I want to return to my country, but I still have to take care of a few things before I leave, and I will speak for longer when I return to France.

RAY SUAREZ: This afternoon, an appeals court denied Diallo’s request for a special prosecutor, meaning Strauss-Kahn will now be able to leave the country.

We take a closer look now at some of the questions surrounding the way this case was handled.

Allison Leotta is a former federal prosecutor for the Department of Justice. She also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., where she specialized in prosecuting sex crimes and domestic violence. She’s now a novelist. And Christopher Kutz is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches criminal law, among other areas. He spent much of the past year as a visiting professor in France.

Professor Kutz, were you surprised that this case that began with such an outburst of publicity and the arrest of a powerful man ended this way, without a trial?

CHRISTOPHER KUTZ, University of California, Berkeley: I think everybody was shocked by this case.

I remember the thunderclap of the announcement in — early in the morning in France in May when he was arrested. This was the man who had — was likely to be the next president. And, suddenly, the political system was upended, followed by the next great shock at the end of June, when the DA announced that the case was essentially collapsing.

I think from the end of June to now has been pretty — pretty predictable, but it certainly — it certainly is a shock, given the certainty with which the DA announced the charges against Mr. Strauss-Kahn back in May.

RAY SUAREZ: Allison Leotta, it unusual for a case to get to this point and then simply not proceed?

ALLISON LEOTTA, former federal prosecutor: It is somewhat unusual.

In the ideal world, you want to know everything there is to know before charges are brought. You know, making the decision itself to charge is one of the most important decisions prosecutors can make, especially in a case like this, a sex crime, where merely leveling the charge can ruin his life.

So, ideally, you would know everything that they now know before you make the charging decision. And so it wouldn’t be done in this manner, where an indictment has been brought and now they have to dismiss a case against the defendant. But they would have found this out beforehand. 

RAY SUAREZ: But on the day of the arrest, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was already on an airplane getting ready to cross the Atlantic and return to his own country. Do you think that imminence might have forced the prosecutors to move more quickly than they might have otherwise?

ALLISON LEOTTA: Absolutely.

I think they all must have had visions of Roman Polanski dancing in their head, the producer, the French producer who ran from sex charges in the United States and fled for 30 years. France doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S. And those prosecutors must have been thinking, am I going to be the person that lets this guy get away? Am I going to be kicking myself over this for the next 30 years?

That said, there are a lot of differences. Strauss-Kahn had a house here in D.C. He was head of the IMF based here in D.C., and he was probably going to run for France — for the French presidency, so it’s unlikely that he wouldn’t return to the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, there was evidence of a physical encounter. And that part was agreed to by all the parties.

But the story diverged right at that moment. Both people involved said two very different things happened in that room. And they’re the only ones who know. Is that what makes prosecuting sex crimes difficult?

CHRISTOPHER KUTZ: It makes prosecuting crimes like this difficult.

And I should just say, we don’t — Dominique Strauss-Kahn has not said what happened in that room. His lawyers have suggested that it was an encounter consistent with consent. But he hasn’t given a positive story of what’s happened. The only story we have seen is the story by his accuser.

But in a case like this, where the physical evidence doesn’t show — doesn’t on its own show force, as the physical evidence here didn’t, then it’s a very difficult case. There are no other witnesses. It really does come down to a question of the credibility of the complainant.

RAY SUAREZ: Was Nafissatou Diallo, in your view, Professor, treated fairly, treated decently for someone making a complaint of this kind?

CHRISTOPHER KUTZ: I think she was treated extremely fairly at the beginning. There’s evidence that she was — her complaint was taken as seriously as it could possibly be.

And I think that’s a tribute both to the professionals in law enforcement, and I think also to a generation of particularly feminist legal scholars and activists who’ve made — who’ve changed the way in which we understand the charge of rape.

I don’t know what happened in those interviews. One of the things that’s interesting in the memorandum that the DA released yesterday is the anger that comes out against her, that she repeatedly lied to them in interview after interview. There clearly — they clearly became very upset with her during the course of this interview.

They indicate they would have understood lies in the past, but not what seemed to be a deliberate attempt to fudge the facts going forward. If that’s the case, if their — if the memorandum that the DA released and talked about yesterday shows what really happened in that room, then I, again, she was treated fairly by being discredited. That’s a very troubling circumstance.

RAY SUAREZ: You just heard the professor refer to the changes in the way these cases are brought.

You have been inside the system. Has there been a shift away from the old days, when a woman might have been under attack from the get-go and questioned as to why and wherefore in the encounter with a man, to almost the burden being on the other side now?

ALLISON LEOTTA: There’s definitely been a shift.

There used to be laws on the books even just a generation ago, in the ’60s, that said you couldn’t bring rape charges if there was only the victim coming forward to testify. There had to be corroboration from another eyewitness. Now, obviously, it’s not the type of crime that takes place in crowded restaurants, so that alone took out a lot of the rape cases that might have been brought.

So things like that have been going to the wayside. And you don’t hear folks saying these days so much, you know, look at what she was wearing; she must have asked for it; she must have wanted it.

At the same time, when victims come forward, they are trusted, they are believed, but the prosecutors must look and see where they’re coming from. What are her reasons for getting into the case? Is she coming forward because something terrible happened to her, and she wants to tell the truth and bring justice, or is she coming forward for other reasons, to get money or revenge or any number of reasons?

So it’s really incumbent on the prosecutors to find that out beforehand. 

RAY SUAREZ: Well, demonstrators thronged the court in New York today, accusing the system basically of prosecuting the victim, rather than the accused.

Is that the kind of thing that’s a risk for an elected district attorney?

ALLISON LEOTTA: Well, sure. For an elected district attorney, he’s — everything that he does is going to be under a microscope. And he’s going to show people that he’s trying to get elected by that, you know, he can do the job.

But I think that it is absolutely part of the job for the prosecutor to be fair. They’re not just trying to win a case. They’re trying to do justice. They have an obligation not only to the victim, but to the defendant as well, to be fair and to look into what actually happened, what is the truth of the matter.

And that’s a special role that prosecutors have that other lawyers around the country just don’t have. And that’s what they did in this case. And it does add a level of scrutiny to the victims of the sex crime. But, on the other hand, in fairness to everybody, it’s something that absolutely has to be done.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, how about that obligation to the defendant? Was Dominique Strauss-Kahn treated fairly in this case?

CHRISTOPHER KUTZ: I think, in the end, he was treated fairly. He got a chance to present his defense, at least indirectly.

I think, at the beginning, people in France and I think around the world were horrified at the — at his treatment, at the famous perp walk, at what seemed to be sort of the real — real rush to try him in the court of public opinion. And, for that, I think there’s really no excuse.

I think that it’s not that he was necessarily treated differently than certainly any other celebrity defendant, but it’s a kind of treatment that I think we shouldn’t support in the American justice system. I think the creation of the media circus around these very serious criminal cases just leads to unpleasantness everywhere.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Kutz, Allison Leotta, thank you both.

ALLISON LEOTTA: Thank you.

CHRISTOPHER KUTZ: Thank you, Ray.