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Why chambermaid's credibility is so germane in Strauss-Kahn case

In sexual assault cases, like the one against ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, outcomes often hang on the credibility of the accusers, who usually must testify, say legal experts.

By Ron Scherer and Patrick Wall / July 1, 2011

Former International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaves New York State Supreme court with his wife Anne Sinclair, Friday, July 1, in New York. A judge has agreed to free Strauss-Kahn without bail or home confinement in the sexual assault case against him. The criminal case against him stands.

Louis Lanzano/AP

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New York

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of sexual assault of a maid at a New York hotel, can forget about the electronic ankle bracelet and the costly home confinement. He’s now free to walk the streets of Manhattan. He just has to agree to show up for trial – if the case ever gets that far.

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The dramatic change in Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s circumstances – he was in a Rikers Island jail cell only six weeks ago – is because Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance now has doubts about his own case, which is still under investigation, say independent attorneys.

The reason for the doubts: witness credibility, namely the accuser's.

The hotel maid who accused the French politician and former chief of the International Monetary Fund of attacking her lied to prosecutors and detectives about her background and her actions on the day of the alleged assault, according to the District Attorney's office. In addition, on the day after the alleged attack, she was tape-recorded discussing with a prison inmate the possible financial benefits of pursuing the charges, according to news reports.

“It is a conversation that would expose her greatly on cross-examination,” says Stan Twardy, a former US attorney and now a partner at Day Pitney in Stamford, Conn. “It greatly undermines her credibility as a witness.”

Witness credibility is particularly crucial in sexual assault cases, say lawyers, because the alleged victim is likely to take the witness stand. Any information germane to the accuser's credibility can be brought up during cross-examination. This would include statements to other people, interviews with the police, and even who her friends are.

“In these cases, credibility is paramount because substantiation almost never exists,” says Alan Kaufman, a former federal prosecutor and a partner in Kelley Drye & Warren’s white-collar defense practice group in New York. “Absent an independent witness and depending on the forensic evidence, a lot depends on the credibility of the person making the allegations.”

Advocacy groups for women say they are not surprised to see the accuser's credibility being questioned. “In pretty much every case that involves sexual assault, a woman’s credibility is put under a microscope,” says Amanda Norejko at Sanctuary for Families, a service provider for victims of gender-based violence. “It’s very difficult to go up against someone who has money and power and influence.”

In fact, some women’s advocates worry that scrutiny of the hotel maid's life will prevent other women from reporting attacks in the future.

“You see the exposure that the chambermaid is undergoing,” says Taina Bien-Aimé at Equality Now, an international human rights organization. “Nobody wants to have their lives scrutinized. This case will have a chilling effect on future victims of sexual violence.”

On May 14, the accuser, an immigrant from Guinea, claimed Strauss-Kahn emerged naked from his hotel suite bathroom and assaulted her, forcing her to perform oral sex. Later that day, the Port Authority police arrested Strauss-Kahn, removing him from a plane bound for France. Considered a flight risk, he he was denied bail. Eventually, his lawyers secured his release from jail by agreeing he would submit to house arrest with guards, an electronic bracelet, and a $1 million bail plus a $5 million bond.

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