Dominique Strauss-Kahn And “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”

Further thoughts on Dominique Strauss-Kahn and our justice system.

The revelations about the accuser in the Dominique Strauss-Khan case, which James Joyner wrote about this morning, brings this comment by Tim Cavanaugh:

Presumption of innocence is serious business, and the penumbral right not to have your reputation ruined by crusading prosecutors is also somewhat serious. If I were presuming DSK’s guilt, I would say that the supposed credibility problems with the accuser (which include association with a marijuana dealer, lying on an asylum application, and discussing the gold-digging possibilities after the alleged assault) do not bear on her allegation about the incidents of May 14. That allegation, backed up by physical evidence, was considered persuasive enough to her co-workers, her employers and police officers.

(…)

The best you can say of Vance is that he may have walked back a misbegotten case against a big politician from another country. Even that would require an expression of no confidence in the police, multiple witnesses after the fact, and a plaintiff whose personal record may not be good but whose credibility on the incident at hand has not been impeached. And even after all that, Vance would be left with having destroyed the reputation and career of an innocent man.

Cavanaugh’s points are well taken, however it’s also important to put yourself in the shoes of the cops and the prosecutors on May 14th. At that point, they had a woman making an allegation of a violent sexual attack in a hotel room. There was physical evidence that at the very least confirmed that sexual activity had taken place. More importantly, there was a person being accused of a crime who was sitting on an airplane to Paris. For all the NYPD knew, Strauss-Kahn would be flying away never to return to their jurisdiction. Based on the evidence they had, and the fact that time was of the essence, I don’t think they acted improperly at all. If there had been time to investigate the case further, as would happen with a rape allegation made against someone who actually lives in New York, these discrepancies might (or might not) have been uncovered sooner. His bail conditions, as I said at the time, fairly standard for someone who has the ability to post a large monetary bail but no ties to the community.

Some will argue that Strauss-Kahn has been treated unjustly, and there’s certainly some evidence for that. He’s lost his job at the IMF and, most likely, any chance of a future political career in France and it’s unlikely that either of those things will ever be restored regardless of what happens to the criminal charges in this case. Certainly, there is a lesson here for those who assumed that he was guilty. While the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” only applies in a legal context and we are all free to make our own conclusions about the guilt or innocence of a person (i.e., everyone with a modicum of common sense knows O.J. did it), rushing to judgment in a high profile case like this is never a good idea. The fact that someone is charged with a crime doesn’t mean they’re guilty, and the fact that someone accuses another person of attacking them doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth. In an era where the criminal charge makes the front page headlines and the acquittal/dismissal gets relegated to Page A10, it’s a good idea not to jump to conclusions every time you see someone brought in via a perp walk.

One final thought is raised by this case. Under long standing journalistic practice, the names of accusers in rape and sexual assault cases are typically not made public. There are good reasons for this, including the idea that the knowledge that their name will become public may cause some women to stay silent about a rape. Nonetheless, this is the type of case where one wonders if that anonymity should always be preserved. If this case goes forward, this woman’s credibility will be the central question of the trial. Why should she not be identified? Frankly, I can’t think of a good reason.

CODA: It’s worth noting that Cavanaugh gets one point wrong here, and I’ve seen several other people do it. The Times story states that this woman told police that she had claimed a previous rape on her immigration application, and that they discovered she was lying when they checked the actual application. She did not, it appears, lie on the application itself.

 

 

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    Rape is such a peculiar charge. We treat it differently than any other adult-on-adult crime, treating the alleged victim in a way that’s rather plainly unconstitutional. If you accuse someone of theft, it’s public. If you accuse someone of rape, only the allegation is public–destroying the reputation of the accused while the accuser is shielded. I fully understand why we do that. But it’s likely wrong.

    I’m increasingly concerned about the way we treat accused criminals, especially high profile ones. The “perp walk” and other official grandstanding is sickening and undermines the “innocent until proven guilty” notion at the heart of our system.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Being raped carries issues of shame that aren’t present when one is robbed. Perhaps that shouldn’t be true, perhaps if more rape victims were outed, social norms might change, but I understand the reluctance.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    BTW/ I hate thre phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” I doubt Strauss-Kahn is “innocent.”

  4. @James Joyner:

    Rape is such a peculiar charge. We treat it differently than any other adult-on-adult crime, treating the alleged victim in a way that’s rather plainly unconstitutional.

    To some extent, I think the legal system is still compensating for the manner in which rape was treated before the 1970s or so. At some point, though, you reach the point of overompensation.

  5. @PD Shaw:

    Legally he is. As I said in the post, people are free to make their moral judgments about him based on what they think they know but he isn’t a criminal.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    He’s very likely a rapist. There is quite a bit of physical evidence, there’s his actions, there’s the statements made at the time by the alleged victim.

    The witness made some false statements unrelated to this. That destroys her credibility so the DA will fold his tent.

    A rich man with endless resources and lots of powerful friends vs. a desperate, poor immigrant woman. The result is predictable American justice.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    @Doug, I don’t what to go all Scottish on you, but I wish we would use the phrase “not proven” or “not guilty.”

  8. Jay says:

    Does the US really practice “innocent till proven guilty” anymore? Those suspected of DWIs must prove they weren’t over the limit even if only sleeping in their cars. Those accused of tax evasion will have money and property seized before the government proves they are delinquent. Eventually we will get to a point where a mere accusation counts as a conviction to all but those with the connections to escape railroading in the courts.

  9. george says:

    I’ve a friend who’s a cop who likes to remark that everyone is guilty of something …

    The problem with reversing it, so that its “guilty until proven innocent”, is that in general its practically impossible to prove a negative – how do you prove you haven’t done something? This is well known in science, and for the most part accepted in law too, though that’s changing … there are people who like Bismarck think its better for ten innocent men be jailed rather than let one guilty man free. For the most part its right wingers who think that way, but in terms of rape its more often left wingers who think that.

    Only two people know what happened between DHK and the maid, and they’re telling different stories. Both have shown a marked ability in the past to lie when it suited them. Which one people believe seems to depend more upon politics than anything else … anyone other than those two who tell you that they know what happened is trying to sell you something.

  10. ponce says:

    A rich man with endless resources and lots of powerful friends vs. a desperate, poor immigrant woman. The result is predictable American justice.

    That’s true, but at least the prosecutor pretended to be serious about prosecuting Kahn for a few weeks before turning him loose.

    Progress of some kind?

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    ok look at him, do you believe for a second his story? SOMETHING happened….. was he guilty of a crime? I doubt any of us will ever know. Was he guilty of a “moral indiscretion”?????

    She spewed his semen all over the walls of his room…..

    You tell me: Did he cheat on his wife? He says he did.

    To elaborate: He may or may not have committed a crime, but his best defense is, “I am a worthless d*ck.”

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    A rich man with endless resources and lots of powerful friends vs. a desperate, poor immigrant woman. The result is predictable American justice.

    This is the most important point in considering our warped judicial system. You get exactly as much justice as you can afford.

  13. Tano says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    You tell me: Did he cheat on his wife? He says he did.

    I don’t think it quite counts as “cheating” when the wife, indeed the larger society, finds nothing objectionable about extra-marital sex.

  14. Tano says:

    A rich man with endless resources and lots of powerful friends vs. a desperate, poor immigrant woman. The result is predictable American justice.

    Y’know, I kinda suspect that I have made arguments of this type a few times in my life. But I gotta say, I really don’t see that at play in this case.

    How has DSK’s wealth and prominence helped him in this case? He certainly got the full treatment from the authorites – arrest, perp walk, Rikers, and bail requirements that nailed him down within the jurisdiction. And what has happened today….that seems to have come about simply by virtue of the prosecutors doing their job and trying to nail down the woman’s story. I

    don’t see that his high-priced lawyers had anything to do with these turn of events, nor do I see any heavy weight being thrown around on his behalf.

    Give me some reason not to think y’all are just taking cheap shots at our judicial system here..

  15. ponce says:

    Give me some reason not to think y’all are just taking cheap shots at our judicial system here..

    If DSK was a poor black man he would have been convicted of rape and sitting in jail by now.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    Tano:

    I don’t think the information about the woman’s asylum application etc.. just marched into the DA’s office on their own, I suspect DSK made that happen.

    More to the point: most criminal prosecutions are won on the strength of testimony from suspect witnesses. Guys who rolled over on crime partners and got a deal, guys with records, paid informers, jailhouse informants, etc…. A witness with a sketchy history as regards strict honesty is hardly unusual. It’s closer to being the norm.

    And how many lies do you suppose we could have found in DSK’s past? The man was a politician, after all, and unless France is a very unusual place it’s likely he’s stretched the truth once or twice.

    So why did the DA get scared? Because he wouldn’t be going against an overworked, under-resourced Public Defender, he’d be going up against a rich man’s lawyers. Big-time lawyers and the threat of big-time resources are the reason such minor points as DSK’s own semen sprayed on the wall will be set aside.

    If he was poor he’d already have cut a deal and be doing 10 years.

  17. Tano says:

    If DSK was a poor black man he would have been convicted of rape and sitting in jail by now.

    That is an assertion, not an argument. It restates your position, it doesn’t strengthen it.

    Poor black men get jury trials too, and I can assure you that there is a sufficient number of people who have some degree of sympathy for poor black men in the NYC jury pool, such that a unanimous guilty verdict in a he-said, she-said case, where the she involved has lied to the prosecutors and the grand jury, is very far from assured.

  18. Tano says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I don’t think the information about the woman’s asylum application etc.. just marched into the DA’s office on their own, I suspect DSK made that happen.

    I haven’t seen any evidence of that. It seems from the letter that I linked to earlier (from the prosecutors to the defense team), that the evidence was generated in the normal course of the prosecutors making sure their case was solid. The defense seemed (very pleasantly) surpised by this.

    A witness with a sketchy history as regards strict honesty is hardly unusual. It’s closer to being the norm.

    True.

    So why did the DA get scared?

    Maybe it wasn’t being scared so much as losing confidence in the validity of the charges. A prosecutor does have a responsibility to the truth, over and above just winning cases for his team.

    But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. In fact, the prosecutor has not dropped or altered the charges at all yet.

    Big-time lawyers and the threat of big-time resources are the reason such minor points as DSK’s own semen sprayed on the wall will be set aside.

    Thats evidence of sex, not rape. AFAIK, he has not contested the fact that they had sex.

  19. ponce says:

    A prosecutor does have a responsibility to the truth, over and above just winning cases for his team.

    Have you ever seen a prosecutor at work, Tano?

    They tell the jury whatever story they think will lead to a guilty verdict with no regard to whether the facts of the case support their story or not.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    Tano:

    Right. A hotel maid from Guinea suddenly decided to blow a little fat man. Then she spit his ejaculate out on the wall and went running from the room crying to her friends and called the cops.

    I think you’re a smart guy who is very naive about the criminal justice system.

  21. michael reynolds says:

    Poor black men get jury trials too,

    Actually no, they don’t. They get a PD who tells them to plead out because he doesn’t have enough time or resources to fight the case.

    Why do you think there are so many wrongful convictions, and so many are of black men? This guy walks because he has money. He may indeed be innocent, but that’s not why he’s walking.

  22. Tano says:

    Poor black men get jury trials too,

    Actually no, they don’t..

    Well, actually they do. I spent six weeks of my life serving on a jury for a poor black guy. I certainly do not dispute that there are wrongful convictions, nor do I dispute that money can buy you incredibly better defense than what you get for free.

    He may indeed be innocent, but that’s not why he’s walking.

    Well, he isn’t walking yet – the charges still stand. And you really haven’t made the case yet that today’s events have anything to do with his wealth and importance. But I do appreciate that you accept that he may be innocent. When I confront such uncertainty, I tend not to go on and write things that are predicated on his guilt.

    A hotel maid from Guinea suddenly decided to blow a little fat man. Then she spit his ejaculate out on the wall and went running from the room crying to her friends and called the cops.

    It apparently has been established by the prosecutors that she was lying when she claimed that she ran from the room and went crying to her friends. She went to another room and cleaned it, i.e., she continued working. Then she went back to DSK’s room, and cleaned that! I’m not saying that it is impossible for her to behave like that after being raped, but it sure is rather odd. And the fact that she lied about the sequence makes it doubly so.

  23. Tano says:

    Further reporting by the Times seems to reinforce the point that the events of yesterday came wholly out of the work of the prosecutors, interrogating the “victim” over her inconsistent story. And some new evidence of a phone call within 24 hours of the incident to her boyfriend in jail where she spoke in a way that suggests she was angling for some money from the rich guy….

  24. ponce says:

    Further reporting by the Times seems to reinforce the point that the events of yesterday came wholly out of the work of the prosecutors

    The Times story reports the prosecutors were abusive towards her…

    Like the military, prosecutor is a job that should be denied to anyone who volunteers for it.

  25. jukeboxgrad says:

    On the theory that this was consensual sex, I wonder if she has any such history with other guests? I know we’re not supposed to focus on the sexual history of a rape victim, but I can’t help being curious about that.

    DSK is a pig, but she’s probably been propositioned by lots of other pigs, passing through the hotel. I wonder how she has handled that. If she said yes to him, then most likely she has done the same with others.

    If I were DSK, I would be hoping that some other guest would come forward and tell a story about how she responded positively when he made a pass at her. DSK’s team might even be actively looking for such a person. But we’ve heard no such story, which make me mildly inclined to speculate that she has no such history, and was actually raped.

    And her history of being a liar? It’s possible for a liar to also be a rape victim. But when a rape victim is a liar, it becomes harder to prosecute successfully. I think it’s also possible for a rape victim to decide, afterward, that they would like to exploit it for money. But that’s something else that looks bad in court.

    I also see a lot of room for a cultural misunderstanding between them, where she gave signals that were unclear or misunderstood by him. I think he has a reputation for being exceptionally aggressive, sexually, and maybe she felt a duty to be relatively passive and accepting. Notice what she supposedly said to her supervisor right after: “Can any guest at the hotel do anything they want with us?” It’s possible that she really is that naive. She comes from a world that’s so foreign (literally) to us that it might as well be another planet.

    A complicated and interesting story.

  26. Loviatar says:

    The only positive sign that I see about racism waning in America is that green now overcomes black. OJ proved that. Damm, even a fat frenchman got off.

    Tano, you’re wrong on this one. As someone who’ve both prosecuted and defended poor black men, the justice system is skewed against poor people in general and blacks men in particular.

    To say differently is either to be very naive or denying reality.

  27. george says:

    So why bother with trials if we already know what happened? Its obvious he raped her, lets just put him in jail – because everything is always like it seems, and we’re all so smart that what we think is obvious is always correct.

    Just like we’re been certain we understand static electricity – it was obvious, and we were 100% confident on our theories. Which now turn out to have been wrong (see the latest Science journal).

    Why is it that as soon as politics gets involved (and most opinions about this is about politics, about rich/poor or white/black or male/female) reasoning, with all the doubt that comes with it, gets replaced by the certainty of conviction (no pun intended)?

    The really funny thing is if he was a poor black man accused of murder with just one witness’s word for evidence, the Republicans would be hanging him out to dry, and the Democrats would be defending him, though nothing else would have changed.

  28. Tano says:

    @Loviatar:

    the justice system is skewed against poor people in general and blacks men in particular.

    I don’t deny that as a generalization. But that does not mean that in any particular case where one party is black (and poor) and the other white (and rich), that a decision in favor of the white guy is unjust, or determined by race, rather than facts.

    Damm, even a fat frenchman got off.

    Show me some evidence, any evidence at all, that he “got off” (the charges are actually still pending) because of his whiteness or his wealth. The case has taken this turn because the “victim” has lied about many many things, to the prosecutors, and to the grand jury. And given the nature of the charges, trust in her testimony is absolutely essential to any conviction.

  29. PD Shaw says:

    The flow of conversation demonstrates that rape victims are not treated the same as victims of other crimes. We have people wondering about her past sexual history. Is she a slut or whore? People talking about prosecutors interrogating the victim. I’ve been the victim of a violent crime, and prosecutors never interrogated me.

  30. michael reynolds says:

    Tano:

    When you release someone OR they’re almost certainly going to walk.

    As I pointed out above, MOST witnesses in criminal cases are proven liars. We convict criminals on the testimony (or threatened testimony) of other criminals. Rape cases very often involve victims with less-than-stellar personal histories.

    If the maid was a wealthy woman with a history that included some false statements and the perpetrator was a black man defended by the PD this thing would either have already been pled out or we’d be on our way to trial.

  31. jukeboxgrad says:

    PD, I know I speculated about her sexual history, and I know that in a way it’s wrong to do this. However, ironically, I explained how my speculation leads me to think that she was raped.

  32. PD Shaw says:

    Jukeboxgrad, it’s natural to speculate. Rape is different because it involves something people do that’s not a crime.

  33. Barry says:

    @george: And when the suspect has to prove their innocence, it’s in the interest of police, prosecutors and forensics people to destroy evidence.