Dominque Strauss-Kahn and the American Justice System

While it’s always dangerous to extrapolate too much from high profile cases to the system as a whole, the strange case of Dominque Strauss-Kahn practically invites it. Even before the bizarre developments of the last couple of days, the Europeans were questioning the way Americans carry out justice. It’s now moved to this side of the Pond.

Jeralyn Merritt at TalkLeft:

Dominique Strauss-Kahn will walk free and be hailed in France as a victim of an unfair American justice system that relies on outrageous perp walks and the sensationalized saturation of public opinion by American media, which views every case through guilt-colored lenses. Every defense attorney in the country will now bring up the DSK debacle in voir dire and closing when trying a he-said/she-said sex assault case. The accuser will return to Guinea to avoid criminal charges of lying to the grand jury and obstructing justice. And Cyrus Vance and his sex crimes unit will never live this one down.

Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings:

In general, I agree that prosecutors should refuse to go to court with a criminal case if the case hinges on testimony from a person who cannot be trusted.  This is, in general, a sound civil libertarian stance.  However, one need only read Radley Balko’s blog, or the ACLU’s blog, or any number of reports on death penalty cases with shaky evidence, to recognize that this standard of credibility should not only be applied to victims of alleged sexual assaults.  It should also be applied to informants (especially in death penalty cases), cops who can’t keep their stories straight, and “expert” witnessesoffering testimony that is dubious at best.

So, by all means, if (for the sake of argument) DSK’s accuser is a person who cannot be trusted, and no other substantial evidence can be mustered to corroborate her allegation, drop the case.  Better to let a hundred guilty people go free than send one innocent to prison.  However, let’s be just as scrupulous in examining the credibility of other prosecution witnesses as well.  Credibility considerations shouldn’t be exclusively for accusers in rape cases.

dmaz at emptywheel:

Game. Set. Match. There is so, so, much more of course (really, read the whole sordid set of facts) that absolutely guts any possibility of proceeding with the woman as a criminal victim against DSK but, seriously, that part of the equation is just done and over.

The criminal charges will be dismissed, the only question is why they have not been already. My guess is twofold, first, Cy Vance and the Manhattan DA’s Office are trying to maximize whatever insulation from liability they can and, second, they are trying to decide how to proceed as to the woman who was formerly the “victim”. By this I mean ascertaining whether she will be detained and deported, arrested and prosecuted, or rolled to be a state witness on substantial crimes involving the current DSK case and/or the drug gang she appears to be involved with. But those are pretty much the options at this point.


Between the DA’s Office of Cy Vance and the battery of attorneys that this supposed minimum wage maid had in tow, there is some of the oddest and most questionable lawyering imaginable afoot.

Yours truly at New Atlanticist:

While public figures, especially wealthy and powerful ones like Strauss-Kahn, have all manner of advantages in the American legal system, they also have the distinct disadvantage of the spotlight, where gossip and rumor passes for news and a rush to judgment occurs, often before formal charges have been filed. Ray Donovan’s famous question, “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?” remains valid.

Now, in this case, the former reputation was quite likely undeserved. Strauss-Kahn is almost certainly a world class cad even if it’s unlikely he’s a rapist. Then again, had the chambermaid simply gone to the tabloids and claimed to have had consensual sex with the IMF director, it wouldn’t have been Topic A for the news media for days on end.

I share some of the concerns raised in Europe, particularly in France, about the way Strauss-Kahn was treated by the American system. Aside from the media circus, which is largely outside the control of the authorities, such features as the “perp walk,” where arrests are made publicly and the accused paraded in front of cameras for maximum embarrassment and prejudicial effect on the potential jury pool is especially cringe-worthy. Additionally, incarcerating those merely accused of crimes at Rykers Island and other ghastly facilities is problematic. But this case showed, too, the positive side of American justice. It was, after all, the prosecutors themselves who divulged the evidence that undermined their own case and swiftly took it to a judge to minimize the harm done to the man in custody.

Expect more questioning and hand-wringing over the coming week or so.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    “even if it’s unlikely he’s a rapist”

    That’s why I don’t like the phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” It’s only increasingly unlikely that they can prove rape within this system. Very likely in most European civil code jurisdictions, Strauss-Kahn could be compelled to give his side of the story, and then match it against the physical evidence. Our system tends to put the victim on trial, because that is where the case will be made or broken.


  2. george says:

    even if it’s unlikely he’s a rapist

    The thing is, we have no idea if he’s a rapist in this case or not, and all everyone’s speculation shows is their own biases. You’d think after centuries of having many things we thought we were sure of proven wrong (and that’s pretty much the history of modern science – look at everything people were sure about the world in say 1400 – and we’re really not much closer to any deep understanding now, as any working scientist will tell you, the world’s a mind boggling complex place) we’d be more humble about what we’re sure of … not to mention all the crimes that people were sure they’d gotten the guilty person (including eye witnesses) being overturned by DNA evidence.

    The reason the court system errs on the side of caution (ie innocent until proven guilty) is because all of us are so often very, very wrong, even about things that seem obvious. Obvious tends to be code for “my own personal experiences”. And all the advantages lie with the state – you only have to look at our overcrowded jails to see that.


  3. Very likely in most European civil code jurisdictions, Strauss-Kahn could be compelled to give his side of the story, and then match it against the physical evidence.

    So you want to eliminate the right to remain silent? I think that would do far more damage than good.


  4. Tano says:

    . Our system tends to put the victim on trial…

    By all means lets make sure it is the accused, not the victim, who goes on trial. But I sense from you writing on this subject that you have already decided that the accused is guilty, before you listen to a word of his defense.

    Putting the victim on trial is bad, but not nearly as bad as assuming the guilt of the accused before the trial/


  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    DSKs guilt or innocence can never be known, only that the woman has lied in the past. But that does not mean she is not telling the truth now. As one who lived with a pathological liar for years and had to deal with her for many more years afterward, the only safe thing to do was believe everything she said was a lie and proceed from there. Same story here. Sad.

    I find the French complaints about the US justice system destroying his reputation laughably ludicrous tho. Who were the women who came out of the woodwork with their own tales of harrassment bordering on attempted rape after the arrest? Europeans…

    And who printed their sordid tales with bated breath? European newspapers.

    Pot calling kettle… you’re black.


  6. Murray says:

    “But this case showed, too, the positive side of American justice. It was, after all, the prosecutors themselves who divulged the evidence that undermined their own case and swiftly took it to a judge to minimize the harm done to the man in custody.”

    Sorry, but bull. It’s an example of too little too late.

    The continental European system routinely investigates the accuser as well as the defendant. As you know there is a preliminary investigation by a judge to determine if charges should be pressed (Not just a public and televised joke hearing followed by a mock “grand jury”). Only then is a prosecutor assigned to the case. During this procedure the details of the case as well as the identities of those involved are considered confidential, and certainly not made a reality TV show of.