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.

Louis Lanzano/AP
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.

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.

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.

At the time, prosecutors thought they had a solid case. Now they are asking for more time to investigate.

"They still have DNA indicating some sexual contact,” says James Cohen, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York. Strauss-Kahn claims the DNA came from consensual sex.

However, the prosecution's request for more time to investigate is mainly to save face, suggests Mr. Cohen. “I think the case is ultimately doomed,” he says.

At the court proceedings Friday, Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said the alleged victim had "a solid work history with her employer" and made a "credible claim" supported by strong evidence.

"The fact of a sexual encounter was and is corroborated by forensic evidence," said Ms. Illuzzi-Orbon, "and the very brief time period inside the hotel suite strongly suggested something other than a consensual act."

However, when the woman acknowledged fabricating information she gave to immigration officials and prosecutors, the District Attorney's office had to reconsider its case.

"All of this has caused us to reassess the position that we have advanced to the court about the strength of the case, an issue that particularly affects the question of bail," said Illuzzi-Orbon.

According to a letter sent by the assistant district attorney to Strauss-Kahn’s attorneys, the accuser has lied about a gang-rape that she said took place in Guinea, lied about what she did immediately after the alleged attack, and has been cheating on her income taxes for the past two years.

“Finally, during the course of this investigation, the complainant was untruthful with assistant district attorneys about a variety of additional topics concerning her history, background, present circumstances and personal relationships,” wrote Illuzzi-Orbon.

Says Mr. Kaufman: “If it is an isolated question of credibility, a prosecutor can live with it unless it is the heart of the case. But if you have a cascade of credibility issues, where not one of them is fatal, but a combination such that you know a jury is never able to accept the testimony of that particular witness, that’s different.”

“If it is an isolated question of credibility, a prosecutor can live with it – unless it is the heart of the case,” says Kaufman. “But if you have a cascade of credibility issues, where not one of them is fatal but a combination such that you know a jury is never able to accept the testimony of that particular witness, that’s different.”

The next step for the DA’s investigators is to make sure they have thoroughly investigated any of the accuser's alleged misstatements, plus any connections she has to people who are accused of illegal acts, says Cohen.

A key issue will be her conversation with an individual incarcerated on narcotics charges. “She was apparently seeking advice from someone she trusted, an inmate, and talked about how lucrative this sort of thing could be,” says Cohen. “It is one thing to consult a lawyer – that is acceptable in society,” he says. “It is another thing to talk to someone in jail.”

After Friday's court proceedings, the woman's attorney, Kenneth Thompson, insisted that his client had been assaulted and that the case should move forward.

"The only defense that Dominique Strauss-Kahn has is that this was consensual. That's a lie," he said.

Mr. Thompson recounted his client's version of the event in graphic detail. He also accused the District Attorney's office of mismanaging the case.

"We don't have confidence that they're ever going to put Dominique Strauss-Kahn on trial," said Thompson.

Asked about his client's apparent lies, Thompson said those were separate from the matter at hand.

"Credibility is important," he told reporters outside the courthouse, "but you cannot discount the powerful physical evidence."

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