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

How you look at things.
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.

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."

Four weeks ago in the DA's office, with the aid of a Fulani interpreter hired by the DA, Thompson listened to the recording of the phone call and emerged with a very different account. He said that 1) Diallo received two calls but didn't place any, 2) she never brought up Strauss-Kahn's wealth as lawsuit bounty, 3) her friend did so, but she told him to stop, 4) she mentioned Strauss-Kahn's wealth and power only in the context of fearing him, and 5) when she said, "I know what I'm doing," she was talking about her safety, not about legal strategy. This fits the account Diallo previously gave to ABC News.

The DA's motion to dismiss offers no substantive rebuttal to Thompson's description of the phone call. Instead, it says that after Diallo "professed to have no interest in obtaining money" from the case, she "had a recorded conversation with her incarcerated fiancé, in which the potential for financial recovery in relation to the May 14, 2011 incident was mentioned." A footnote adds that two translations of the call were "materially similar in their discussion of making money with the assistance of a civil lawyer." From this, the DA concludes that her "disavowal of any financial interest is relevant to her credibility." And a "law enforcement official involved in the investigation" tells the Times, according to the paper's paraphrase, that the phone call "signified another episode of Ms. Diallo's not being forthright."

Not being forthright? That's rich. First these officials told the Times that Diallo essentially said: "This guy has a lot of money. I know what I'm doing." Then, when the recording didn't match their description, they rephrased everything in the passive voice—there were "discussions" in which money "was mentioned"—so that they could obscure who said what and continue to imply that she had undisclosed financial motives.

The official who says Diallo wasn't forthright about the phone call also tells the Times that there can be (this is a quote) "no question as to the substance of the conversation." Really? That sounds like more passive-voice fudging to me. Let's hear the conversation. The DA has the recording. Release it.

4. The bank transactions. The motion to dismiss says Diallo "failed to disclose a stream of cash deposits—totaling nearly $60,000—that were made into her checking account" by people in four states. (It doesn't say how many people made these deposits.) It says Diallo affirmed that her friend had sometimes asked her to withdraw cash from the account and deliver it to his business partner. Given the sums involved, the motion conveys incredulity that she "claimed not to know how much money had gone through her account in this fashion."

That's funny, because the DA's office apparently didn't know how much had gone through the account, either. On June 30, the Times reported that according to "well-placed law enforcement officials," various people had "made multiple cash deposits, totaling around $100,000, into [Diallo's] bank account over the last two years." Now that number is down to $60,000. If the first number was wrong, why should we believe the second?

I still wouldn't convict Strauss-Kahn, given what we know so far. But I wouldn't exonerate him, either. I certainly wouldn't do so based on this shifty, unsubstantiated, heavily spun report from the DA. We've already been suckered once by these prosecutors. Let's not make the same mistake twice.

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