Strauss-Kahn and the second assault on the maid

The sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is at the risk of collapsing.

Vembu July 01, 2011 12:02:15 IST
Strauss-Kahn and the second assault on the maid

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, who faces serious charges of sexual assault on a maid in a Manhattan, may yet walk free – and become President of France.

New York Times reports that the case against Strauss-Kahn is “on the verge of collapse” since investigators had uncovered “major holes” in the credibility of the hotel housekeeper who had made the charges against him.

StraussKahn and the second assault on the maid

Strauss-Kahn resigned as IMF chief following the scandal. Reuters

Strauss-Kahn resigned as IMF chief following the scandal, which also appeared to have torpedoed his shot at the French Presidency as a candidate of the Socialist Party. But there is already speculation that if the charges against him are dropped, as appears likely, Strauss-Kahn could yet secure the Socialist Party nomination – and perhaps even go on to win the Presidency, beating Nicolas Sarkozy.

Joe Weisenthal writes at Business Insider:

Prior to arrest, DSK was the likely socialist candidate to run against Nicolas Sarkozy, and he was seen as having a good shot at beating him.

Now his odds would be even better. Remember, DSK has been viewed rather sympathetically in the French media, post-arrest, with much blame going towards the American media (for how he has been portrayed) and the American criminal justice system (for how he was treated)….

So he comes back to France a hero, having weather the criminal justice system and the media. He easily wins the Socialist nomination, and with tensions over euro bailouts reaching a boil, he then defeats Sarkozy.”

The theory isn’t implausible, given the realpolitik considerations that ride on this case: if the dominoes fall exactly as described, within an abbreviated time frame, Strauss-Kahn could go on to win the presidency. There have been suggestions in the French media, right from the first day, that Strauss-Kahn was “framed” in the case because he was seen as a serious challenge for the presidency.

Yet, even if he is exonerated from the sexual assault case under these circumstances, the suspicion that he walked free by invoking one of the most controversial defences in cases of sexual assault – by discrediting the victim – could linger for long.

Forensic tests conducted immediately after the alleged assault found evidence of a sexual encounter between Strauss-Kahn and the maid. Traces of his DNA were recovered from her clothes. His defence in the early days of the trial rested on the claim that any sexual encounter that happened was consensual.

His legal defence team’s strategy then moved to attacking the victim’s credibility, which is the oldest trick in the book in cases of alleged sexual assault. Prosecutors in the case now appear to have taken the same tack in rejecting the maid’s claims.

In her research paper Discrediting Victims' Allegations of Sexual Assault: Prosecutorial Accounts of Case Rejections, Lisa Frohman at the University of California at Los Angeles and American Bar Foundation, points out that “a central feature of prosecutorial accounts of case rejection is the discrediting of victims' allegations of sexual assault.” And prosecutors typically employ two techniques to discredit victim's complaints: discrepancies in the victim’s accounts and alleged ulterior motives.

Writing about an unrelated case in 2003, USA Today’s columnist Susan Estrich, who was herself raped as a 20-year-old, recalled the pressures that a victim of sexual assault faces:

Nearly 30 years ago, I sat in the back of a police car as the Boston cops warned me about what would happen to me if I officially reported that I'd just been raped.

Continued on the next page...

"Are you ready to go on trial yourself?" they asked."Do you understand what defense lawyers could do to you?" they asked.

I was 20 years old at the time. I thought I was the victim. I didn't understand why my life would be put under a microscope.

In sexual assault cases, she writes, “the defence of choice is increasingly the old standard of attacking a woman's credibility … to at least raise a reasonable doubt as to consent.” She calls it the ‘nuts and sluts’ defence, “a new label for one of the oldest tactics in the book.”

StraussKahn and the second assault on the maid

Prosecutors now say they do not believe much of what the maid has told them. Reuters

In the Strauss-Kahn case, prosecutors now say they do not believe much of what the maid has told them about the circumstances of the alleged sexual assault or about herself.

The New York Times reports that the maid had a phone conversation with “an incarcerated man” within a day of the alleged assault by Strauss-Kahn, in which conversation she discussed the possible benefits of pursuing the charges against him.

That incarcerated man, it turns out, had been arrested on charges of possessing illegal drugs, and was one of many individuals who had made multiple cash deposits, totalling around $100,000, into the maid’s bank account over the last two years.

The report adds: “The investigators also learned that she was paying hundreds of dollars every month in phone charges to five companies. The woman had insisted she had only one phone and said she knew nothing about the deposits except that they were made by a man she described as her fiancé and his friends.”

“In addition, one of the officials said, she told investigators that her application for asylum included mention of a previous rape, but there was no such account in the application. She also told them that she had been subjected to genital mutilation, but her account to the investigators differed from what was contained in the asylum application."

In other words, even if the maid was sexually assaulted in the hotel room, as she alleges, the case could be thrown out on the grounds – as Frohman cites in her research – that there are discrepancies in the victim’s accounts and she has “ulterior motives”.

Frohman adds: “The presence of criminal connections can also be used as a resource for identifying ulterior motives."

“Prosecutors  develop the basis for ulterior motives from the knowledge they have of the victim's personal  life and criminal connections. They create two types of ulterior motives, those that suggest the victim made a false rape complaint and those that acknowledge the legitimacy of the complaint but discredit the account because of its unconvictability. In the accounts prosecutors give, ulterior motives for case rejection are supported with discrepancies in victims' accounts and other practitioners' knowledge.”

The Strauss-Kahn case is playing exactly according to that script. In the past, women’s rights activists have pointed to attacks on a victim’s credibility in cases of alleged sexual assault “as a chilling effect, a barrier, to getting victims to report sexual assaults.”

“It kind of tells you why people may not want to come forward, again, for the fear of retaliation, or the fear of not being believed,” one activist said.

Strauss-Kahn could yet walk free and become French President - on the strength of  the prosecutors' citing of discrepancies in the maid's narrative that are, in the final analysis, extraneous to what happened in the hotel room that day.

If so, women's rights activists will doubtless see it as a second assault on the maid - and on all women who may find themselves in similar tragic circumstances.

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