If only we could turn the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case over to the writers of “Law & Order” to provide the order we crave. It violates our sense of justice to have one of our front-page dramas end without a finding of right and wrong.
What the DSK story shows -- as did Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson before -- is that the legal process and our sense of justice aren’t the same. Forensic evidence collected by the police -- semen, saliva, ripped pantyhose, a torn ligament, vaginal bruising -- was sufficient corroboration of Nafissatou Diallo’s complaint to pull DSK out of his first-class seat on Air France. It was enough for many of us to question his innocence, even after her many embellishments and lies.
All of this suggests that something untoward happened in that room, and it’s hard for many to buy that a woman who had worked without incident for three years in a hotel would one day see a naked man coming at her and consent to his advances because she could make a buck off it.
Without a trial, we are unlikely to have the chance to sort out the claims and counterclaims. Both parties cast themselves as victims: DSK, who had to resign as managing director of the International Monetary Fund, probably won’t become the president of France because the race to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy has moved on without him. Diallo, a Muslim immigrant who went from hair-braiding and working in a bodega to her hard-earned position as a hotel maid and had just been assigned her own floor to clean, is unlikely to continue her climb. Life is relative.
It’s hard not to feel that Diallo was ill-prepared for what lay ahead. Few in immigrant society actively engage the justice system; even fewer go up against the rich and powerful. Diallo mucked things up in a multitude of ways.
Not all these things must be present to make for a very poor complainant, but they all came into play with Diallo. She talked way too much, DSK not at all until his lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, this week triumphantly explained the Sofitel encounter between two strangers as a “momentary lapse of judgment that was not criminal.”
It goes against every instinct of a prosecutor to drop a case, but that is what Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. did at a press conference that took place as a real earthquake was hitting. Rather than wound Vance -- who has the challenge of filling the shoes of his predecessor, the legendary Robert Morgenthau -- the DSK case should enhance him.
He has nothing to be ashamed of. With incriminating evidence, he took the word of a poor, black, Muslim immigrant over that of a famous European man. The U.S. might have had legal problems extraditing DSK if he were on French soil, so the risk was high that had he flown off, he wouldn’t have returned for trial. The way DSK’s lawyer learned that Diallo had credibility issues wasn’t through his own efforts but because Vance did the right thing and quickly: He turned over exculpatory evidence. It’s required by case law but not always done when it comes with the large serving of crow a prosecutor must eat publicly.
The case has had other effects. It has, for instance, emboldened French women. Writer Tristane Banon has filed a criminal complaint against DSK over an alleged assault in February 2003. Two others accused Civil Services Minister Georges Tron of a sexual attack. He has resigned over the incident. The age of looking the other way may be coming to an end.
If this case is ever ripped from the headlines for a prime-time police procedural, it will have a more satisfying ending. As unsatisfying as this one is, there are virtues in this particular conclusion. Be thankful we have a judicial system where our gut sense of fairness can prevail -- even if it doesn’t meet a set standard of proof.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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