In some breathless quarters of the New York media, Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been all but convicted.
The former head of the International Monetary Fund, who is charged with trying to rape a hotel maid, has been characterized as an arrogant satyr and dubbed “Le Perv” by the tabloids. Nearly every day, new incriminating details are leaked anonymously to the media. In one report, Strauss-Kahn had the victim pinned to the bed while she begged him to leave her alone, only to be told, “Don’t you know who I am?”
Even Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg seemed to overlook the presumption of innocence momentarily when asked why a handcuffed Strauss-Kahn was paraded before a ravenous news pack: “It think it’s humiliating, but if you don’t want to do the perp walk, don’t do the crime.”
Though the public may think it knows what happened May 14 around noon in that luxury suite of the Sofitel Hotel, it has yet to hear much from the defense. Strauss-Kahn, 62, has been assembling a well-credentialed team to counter prosecutors with the venerable Manhattan district attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit.
A tiny preview of the coming bout between the legal heavyweights was revealed Thursday in a motion Strauss-Kahn’s attorneys filed in Manhattan Supreme Court attempting to stop the police from releasing information about the investigation.
In a two-page letter to the judge, defense lawyers indicated that they too could be spewing information to the media — which they said would “gravely undermine the credibility of the complainant” — but they didn’t want to prejudice a potential jury pool.
Prosecutors fired back that they were unaware of anything that could “gravely” hurt her credibility, deadpanning, “If you really do possess the kind of information you suggest that you do, we trust you will forward it immediately to the district attorney’s office.”
Those who have observed Benjamin Brafman, one of Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers, say they had never known him to be shy about talking to the press. The letter to the judge from Brafman and attorney William W. Taylor III was seen as part of a strategy — yet another hint — that Strauss-Kahn would insist the 32-year-old woman consented to have sex with him.
Among the first calls Strauss-Kahn made after police escorted him off a Paris-bound jet shortly before takeoff was to Taylor, a soft-spoken Southerner and Washington insider. Taylor represented Strauss-Kahn a few years ago when he was facing an internal investigation by the Washington-based IMF over an affair with a woman who worked for him there. Though he was reprimanded for bad judgment, he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
When Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York, he again reached out to Taylor, who quickly contacted Brafman, with whom he had worked defending a white-shoe law firm accused of fraud.
“If you’re in New York and you’re in a heap of trouble, Ben’s the guy you call,” said Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos, who teamed up with Brafman in the early stages of defending Michael Jackson against child molestation charges. Brafman’s other famous clients include Sean “Diddy” Combs, Jay-Z, former NFL receiver Plaxico Burress and a roster of New York gangsters.
Geragos and Charles Ross, Brafman’s former partner, each described him as a savvy cross-examiner with a wily manner and a engaging sense of humor — he was once a Catskills stand-up comic.
“He has very few peers in the courtroom, and it comes from very hard work,” Ross said. “He’ll get every shred of discovery that the DA will provide … and then some.”
Attorneys who have worked with and opposed Brafman say his technique is often to pick one or two factual issues and, starting with the pretrial publicity, hammer away at them. In this case, they predicted he would mold his defense around Strauss-Kahn’s accuser, homing in on any weakness in her story or character he could dig up.
Brafman and Taylor have engaged a platoon of investigators, including former prosecutors and ex-police officers who are reportedly ferreting out such things as data recorded on electronic room keys used to open the hotel doors and details of the victim’s life in Guinea, a former French colony in West Africa where she lived before she came to New York seven years ago.
In addition, the defense has brought on Marina Ein, a Washington-based public relations advisor who worked for former Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) when he was questioned during the investigation into the disappearance of slain Washington intern Chandra Levy.
This is all adding up to a multimillion-dollar defense bill for a man who, before he got into trouble, had been negotiating the economic crisis in Europe and weighing a run for the presidency of France. Now, he and his wife, Anne Sinclair, an heiress and former French television journalist, who has been by her husband’s side, are managing an expensive campaign to keep him out of prison.
When Sinclair arrived from France, she reportedly was accompanied by his French publicist and by Jean Veil, who is defending former French President Jacques Chirac in a corruption trial. It is unclear whether he too is on the defense team.
If this case goes before a jury, however, the challenge of pulling together a convincing argument is likely to rest with Brafman.
Even when there is physical evidence and a victim willing to testify, the outcome of sex crime cases is often unpredictable. The Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit lost a high-profile case last week in which two New York police officers were accused of rape.
Lisa F. Jackson, a filmmaker who recently spent two years shadowing the unit’s prosecutors for a documentary being shown next month on HBO, said they are used to difficult cases, though few bring as much attention as the one involving Strauss-Kahn.
“They face big-gun lawyers all the time,” Jackson said. “They’ll be completely unintimidated by whatever the defense brings to the table in terms of reputations of the lawyers or new information or who-knows-what surprises they’ll arrive at trial with.”
Strauss-Kahn’s next court appearance is expected on June 6; in the meantime, he is living under house arrest in a luxury Tribeca townhouse. Last week, television satellite trucks jammed the Manhattan neighborhood’s narrow streets, and photographers, many of them French, were canvassing the neighborhood trying to find a doorman who would take $500 in cash to let them up on the roof to take pictures through the skylight of Strauss-Kahn’s townhouse.
By week’s end, there was no evidence they’d found any takers.