In a twist that could signal the collapse of a sexual assault case against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a judge Friday lifted his house arrest and bail after prosecutors admitted a “substantial credibility issue” against the hotel maid who accused him of trying to rape her.
Among other things, the woman lied on her asylum application about having been gang-raped in the past and repeated the lie in interviews with attorneys from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, according to a letter submitted by prosecutors.
Strauss-Kahn, wearing a suit and ice blue tie, looked grim as he walked out of the courtroom but broke into a smile as he emerged onto the streets of Manhattan with his wife, Anne Sinclair. His attorney, Benjamin Brafman, called Judge Michael Obus’ move a “giant step in the right direction.”
But prosecutors noted that Strauss-Kahn, 62 — one of France’s most powerful political figures, who had been considered a contender to become its next president — remains under indictment. “Today’s proceedings did not dismiss the indictment, or any of the charges,” said Dist. Atty. Cyrus R. Vance Jr. “Our prosecutors will continue their investigation into these alleged crimes.”
And Kenneth Thompson, an attorney representing the 32-year-old accuser, said that no matter what inconsistencies may have emerged in the woman’s accounts of her life in her native Guinea and of her encounter with Strauss-Kahn, they should not derail the case. “She was violently attacked in that room,” Thompson said angrily outside the courthouse, as media from across the globe and spectators swarmed the sidewalks.
The turnaround was an embarrassment to prosecutors, who had initially portrayed the woman as highly credible and whose trumpeting of the case against Strauss-Kahn — including a semen sample and his arrest minutes before he was due to fly to France — fueled sensational media coverage and public abhorrence.
“This is a wild anomaly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any prominent case go from slam dunk to prosecution disaster so quickly,” said Stanford Law School professor Robert Weisberg, founder of the university’s Criminal Justice Center. “I would be surprised if this case lasts much longer.”
According to a source in the district attorney’s office, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly, it did not take long for attorneys to begin questioning whether the prosecution should go forward. Strauss-Kahn was indicted five days after the May 14 incident and had been held on $6-million bond and ordered to remain under house arrest after pleading not guilty to sexual assault charges.
Under terms of the agreement between prosecutors and the defense, he still may not travel out of the United States, but bail was lifted and he was granted the freedom to leave his Manhattan apartment. His next court appearance was set for July 18.
“After she goes to the grand jury, they keep finding more and more stuff about her that they were unhappy about,” the source said of the accuser. “But the office had thrown themselves behind the case in such a loud way. I mean, we took down a major figure who was involved in the bailout of Greece.”
A letter sent to Strauss-Kahn’s legal team Thursday and signed by assistant district attorneys Joan Illuzzi-Orbon and John McConnell outlined some of the discrepancies that led them to question the accuser’s credibility. They included the woman’s admission that she had lied on her tax returns and about her actions in the minutes after the alleged attack in Strauss-Kahn’s Manhattan hotel room.
But most damning may have been her admission that claims of having been gang-raped in her West African homeland were lies intended to help her win asylum in the United States, according to the letter. “The victim cried and appeared to be markedly distraught” when recounting the alleged gang rape to prosecutors, the letter said. “In subsequent interviews she admitted that the gang rape had never occurred.”
Since she was expected to be the key witness against Strauss-Kahn, the blows to her credibility could doom the prosecution’s chances of getting a conviction, said former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson, who teaches criminal law at Loyola Law School. “If she lied to the grand jury, I wouldn’t expect a trial jury to believe her,” said Levenson, adding that false accounts of gang rape would be especially difficult for prosecutors to overcome.
“It’s all about the alleged victim’s credibility. I hate say that she is going to be the one on trial here, but realistically she is. We know there was a sexual encounter. What we don’t know is whether it was consensual,” Levenson said.
Gloria Allred, the Los Angeles attorney who has represented victims of the wealthy and powerful for 30 years, said that she feared the case against Strauss-Kahn was “pretty close to DOA.”
“It’s a shame, because no one should conclude that she was or was not sexually assaulted here,” Allred said. “There is always a possibility that a victim who lied in the past was raped in the present.”
In court Friday, Illuzzi-Orbon noted that forensic evidence corroborated “the fact of a sexual encounter … and the very brief time period inside the hotel suite strongly suggested something other than a consensual act.”
But William Taylor III, one of Strauss-Kahn’s attorneys, said it was absurd to think of his client as a rapist. “He’s a seducer, not an attacker,” Taylor said in a phone interview, adding that the district attorney had not offered a plea deal to reduce the charges. “We wouldn’t take one if he did, because Mr. Strauss-Kahn is not guilty.”
The defense team’s next step will be to speak to prosecutors “and persuade them this case is dead,” Taylor said. “They’ll have to confront the reality that the credibility of the single witness is fatally damaged, and the idea of taking this case to trial is now a nonstarter.”
Taylor said he did not know if Strauss-Kahn and his wife would move out of the $50,000-a-month Manhattan townhouse they have been renting for his house arrest.
“In the last 48 hours they went from being prisoners in their home to figuring out where they’ll have dinner tonight,” Taylor said.
Susman and Baum reported from New York, Williams from Los Angeles.