The sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is collapsing. And no matter what you think generally about rape, overaggressive prosecutors, or Strauss-Kahn's behavior with women, you should celebrate. This isn't a defeat for women or the justice system. It's a victory for the power of corroboration.
New York authorities arrested Strauss-Kahn on May 14 in part because they trusted his accuser, a housekeeper at the hotel where the incident took place. She had reported the incident right away. Her account was detailed and, according to prosecutors, "compelling." She seemed devoutly religious. She had held the same job for several years. But she also had corroborating evidence. Hotel security officers found semen on the wall and floor of the hotel room. Prosecutors told the judge that an "expert forensic examination of the victim was consistent with her version of events." Reportedly, this included a DNA match between Strauss-Kahn and semen on the woman's shirt. An official says the exam also found vaginal bruising.
But bruising alone doesn't prove rape. And semen only proves sex, which Strauss-Kahn's lawyers never denied. So the case seemed likely to boil down to he-said-she-said. And that's scary, because without corroborating evidence, there's a high risk of terrible injustice. A guilty man might get away with rape. Or an innocent man might be convicted.
We've now been spared that nightmare, thanks to the availability and diligent pursuit of evidence against which to check the accuser's credibility. The government has found external ways to test her veracity. And she has flunked.
The first test, according to a June 30 letter from the district attorney's office, is the woman's previous application for asylum, submitted to U.S. immigration authorities in 2004. * In it, she claimed to have suffered persecution, beating, and incarceration in her native Guinea. After Strauss-Kahn's arrest, investigators asked the woman about her life in Guinea. Her story didn't match what she had reported in the application. According to the letter, she admitted to investigators that what she had reported on the application was false.
The next test is her tax returns. They show that for two years, she has padded her refund by claiming as a dependent a child who turns out to be a friend's child, not hers.
Then there's the income she has reported in order to qualify for public housing. Apparently, it doesn't check out. According to the letter, she has now "admitted to misrepresenting her income" for this purpose.
You can argue that these discrepancies are understandable, minor, or irrelevant. But according to the New York Times, a day after accusing Strauss-Kahn, the woman placed a phone call to her boyfriend. The call was recorded, evidently because the boyfriend was in a detention center after being arrested on charges of possessing 400 pounds of marijuana. Apparently, authorities were unaware of the call until several days later, when they learned from another recorded call, between the boyfriend and another man, that the boyfriend's paramour was the woman in the Strauss-Kahn case. The phone call from the woman was conducted in a Guinean dialect, so the DA's office had to get the recording translated. The translation, completed on Wednesday, reportedly shows her saying, in the paraphrase of a law enforcement official: "Don't worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I'm doing."
According to the Times, investigators have also found bank records "showing deposits of thousands of dollars in Arizona, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania to an account" in the woman's name. The deposits were in multiple cash transactions, adding up to around $100,000, and one of the depositors was the boyfriend. They imply a possible drug-running scheme, and they certainly contradict the woman's repeated statements that her housekeeping job was her only income source. According to the Times, investigators met with the woman and her lawyer on Tuesday and "confronted her with the bank records. The woman, silent, turned to [her lawyer], seemingly pleading for direction on how to respond. He seemed startled." One official says the lawyer "was speechless."
As for her initially "compelling" account of the Strauss-Kahn incident, the letter from the DA's office indicates she was equally compelling in her original descriptions of having been gang-raped in Guinea. In two interviews with assistant DAs, the letter reports, she "cried and appeared to be markedly distraught" as she described in detail the Guinea rape. But later, "she admitted that the gang rape had never occurred" and that she had "fabricated the details."
The woman now says she didn't want to contradict the story she had told in her asylum application. She says she told the story that way in the application order to get asylum. She says she really was raped, just not in the way she had originally reported.
But now we're talking about a rape accuser who admits to having lied about a rape, apparently with the same compelling detail and conviction she originally showed in this case.
The June 30 letter also says she has changed her version of the Strauss-Kahn incident. Originally, she told detectives and the grand jury that after the assault, she fled to a hallway and waited until her supervisor arrived. Now, according to the letter, she has "admitted that this account was false and that after the incident in Suite 2806, she proceeded to clean a nearby room and then returned to Suite 2806 and began to clean that suite before she reported the incident to her supervisor."
Unfortunately for her, investigators found a way to test her new story: the card key she carried as a hotel employee. On Friday, they procured records showing that according to her card key, she didn't go to the other room till she had finished Strauss-Kahn's room.
Then there's the phone problem. The woman told investigators she had only one phone. But the Times says they've found records indicating that she "was paying hundreds of dollars every month in phone charges to five companies." The June 30 letter says she "was untruthful … about a variety of additional topics concerning her history, background, present circumstances and personal relationships."
None of this makes the semen or the bruises go away. Prosecutors say there's still evidence to suggest that the encounter was coercive. Maybe. But it would be a travesty to send anyone to jail based on the evidence we've seen so far. On Friday, I still thought Strauss-Kahn was guilty. Today, I don't. And that was before the New York Post leaked the defense team's allegations that the accuser received "extraordinary tips" of a suggestive nature. That, too, can presumably be checked.
Already, there are cries of concern that if the case disintegrates, it will destroy the credibility of rape victims or immigrants, while powerful abusers will go free. That's the wrong conclusion. The unraveling of the Strauss-Kahn prosecution is a victory for justice, because investigators found ways to check the accuser's credibility. Other accusers will pass such tests. This one didn't. What the collapse of this case proves is that it's possible to distinguish true rape accusations from false ones—and that the government, having staked its reputation on an accuser's credibility, diligently investigated her and disclosed her lies. The system worked.
None of this would have been possible without the layers of electronic surveillance and record-keeping—card keys, phone taps, tax returns, public housing forms, bank and billing data—that pervade our lives. We often complain that these devices and databases impinge on our freedom. Today, they have given a man his freedom. And they have given all of us hope that even when only two people were in the room, we can find ways to ascertain who's telling the truth.
Correction, July 6, 2011: The June 30 letter from the New York District Attorney's office says the accuser submitted a Dec. 30, 2004, asylum application to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Originally, I repeated this description of the application. However, the INS was abolished in 2003, with its functions dispersed among three immigration agencies. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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