Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Nafissatou Diallo: Are prosecutors framing the victim?

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Aug. 23 2011 8:55 AM

Frame the Victim

Prosecutors oversold the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Now they're overselling the case against his accuser.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Nafissatou Diallo
Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Nafissatou Diallo

The Manhattan district attorney's office has filed a motion to dismiss the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The motion accuses the alleged victim, Nafissatou Diallo, of a "pattern of untruthfulness" marked by "shifting and inconsistent versions" of their encounter in a New York hotel. But the same can be said of the DA's office. Having exaggerated the case against Strauss-Kahn, prosecutors are now exaggerating the case against Diallo. Here are four elements of their story that don't add up.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1. Room 2820. The DA's motion accuses Diallo of "continued conflicting accounts" of the incident. It says she told prosecutors three different versions of what she did after being assaulted: one version prior to June 28, a second version on June 28, and a third version on July 27. But if you read the first and third versions (on Pages 11-13 of the motion), you'll see that they don't differ much: In the third version, unlike the first, she said that after being assaulted in Room 2806 of the hotel, she opened Room 2820 briefly to retrieve her cleaning supplies. The only serious puzzle is the June 28 version. Here's how the DA's report describes it:

[A]fter leaving the defendant's room, she had gone directly into another room (2820) to finish cleaning it. She gave specific details, saying that she had vacuumed the floor and cleaned the mirrors and other furniture in that room. She further stated that after completing her tasks in Room 2820, she had returned to the defendant's suite and began to clean it as well.

This version is plainly wrong: Electronic records show that Diallo opened the doors of 2820 and 2806 in the same minute, which wouldn't have given her time to do all that cleaning of 2820. But did she really tell this farfetched story? In an interview with ABC News, taped shortly before July 24, Diallo attributed the false version to mistranslation. In the 33rd minute of the interview, she said that 1) prosecutors used a different translator on June 28, 2) they asked her if she had spat out Strauss-Kahn's semen in Room 2820, 3) she told them she hadn't, since she had already cleaned that room, and 4) she told them she had opened Room 2820 to get her supplies. It's easy to see how a mistranslation could have happened: Diallo described how she had cleaned Room 2820, and the prosecutors, through the translator, thought she was saying she had done this after the assault, when she reopened its door.

The DA's motion rejects this explanation. It says that Diallo showed an ability to understand English and that she didn't correct the interpreter's translation. It adds that on July 27,

As to the statements that the complainant had made on June 28, she denied making them, and asserted that they must have been mistranslated by the interpreter or misunderstood by prosecutors. But that claim is not believable in light of the extensive follow-up questioning about these events. … Critically, her willingness to deny having made those statements to the very same prosecutors who had heard her make them on June 28 calls her credibility into question at the most fundamental level.

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This is hugely important. In this passage, the prosecutors are basically saying that Diallo lied about what happened in a room with them on June 28, and therefore they can't trust her account of what happened in a room with Strauss-Kahn on May 14. But where's the evidence that Diallo delivered the June 28 account as they're reporting it? Did they record the conversation? If so, release the audio or transcript.

2. The Guinea rape. The DA's motion says that in interviews with prosecutors on May 16 and May 30, Diallo described having been gang-raped by soldiers in her native Guinea. The report says "she offered precise and powerful details about the number of her attackers," their mistreatment of her daughter, and the scars she got from the assault. Then, on June 8 and 9, she "admitted to prosecutors that she had entirely fabricated this attack" as part of her application for U.S. asylum. This, according to the DA, shows a dismaying "ability to recount … fiction as fact with complete conviction."

That's pretty damning. But in the fine-print footnote below this denunciation, the DA says that in her June 9 and June 28 interviews, Diallo

stated that she had indeed been raped in the past in her native country, but in a completely different incident than the one that she had described in her earlier interviews. Our interviews of the complainant yielded no independent means of investigating or verifying this incident.

In other words, she did not say that the rape was "entirely fabricated." She changed the details. That doesn't excuse her dishonesty. But it does narrow the extent to which she has shown a willingness to lie—not to mention the obvious difference between sending an innocent man to jail and distorting a bygone rape by unnamed assailants to get asylum.

And that, in turn, raises questions about the DA's candor. In a June 30 letter, the DA's office said Diallo "states that she would testify that she was raped in the past in her native country but in an incident different than the one that she described during initial interviews." In the motion to dismiss, however, the DA calls her second account of the rape a "completely different incident." By inserting the word "completely," the DA's office bolsters its claim she "entirely fabricated" the rape. On what basis does the DA justify this inflation of its allegation? The motion to dismiss cites no further interviews with Diallo, and it admits that the DA hasn't investigated the purported Guinea rape. The only basis for saying she lied is her retraction. But we have no idea how much of the initial account she retracted. Let's see the details.

3. The phone call. On July 1, the New York Times described a phone call Diallo received from an incarcerated friend a day after the Strauss-Kahn incident:

Investigators with the Manhattan district attorney's office learned the call had been recorded and had it translated from a "unique dialect of Fulani," a language from the woman's native country, Guinea, according to a well-placed law enforcement official. When the conversation was translated—a job completed only this Wednesday—investigators were alarmed: "She says words to the effect of, 'Don't worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I'm doing,' " the official said.

The leaker wasn't named. But in an affidavit filed yesterday, Diallo's lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, reports a strikingly similar characterization by prosecutors:

On June 30, 2011, Assistant District Attorneys Daniel Alonso and Joan Illuzzi-Orbon called [Diallo's] counsel and stated that [she] had been captured on tape talking about [Strauss-Kahn] with that prisoner a day after the sexual assault and said words to the effect, "Don't worry. This guy has a lot of money. I know what I'm doing."

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