The toppling of Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Published 22/05/2011 | 05:00
Even by Hollywood standards it would be far--fetched. An international financier and possible future president of France ends up in one of America's most notorious prisons, accused of trying to rape a hotel maid in a swanky Manhattan hotel. But this is the grim reality for IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Khan whose glittering career now lies in tatters. There are two sides to every story, and we have both of them. Orla Healy and Aoife Drew report from New York and Paris
WHEN Domin- ique Strauss-Kahn walked into room 1324 of NYC's Supreme Court for his bail hearing just after 2.30 on Thursday afternoon, he looked at his wife Anne Sinclair who was seated in the front row of the gallery, and smiled. Later, when the hearing went into recess, DSK blew his wife an extravagant kiss. This time, she smiled. It was a small gesture that would make many New Yorkers gag on their bagels on Friday morning as they devoured the details of a drama that has gripped the city since it exploded in a hot, sordid mess last weekend.
This being New York, everyone has an opinion as to whether DSK is guilty of the seven charges handed down in Thursday's indictment: two counts of a criminal sexual act, two counts of sexual abuse, and one count each of attempt to commit rape, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg pretty much summed up the city's unforgiving attitude towards DSK when he was asked to address criticism suggesting the accused might have been unfairly treated when, unshaven and haggard after spending Sunday night on a wooden chair in a Harlem police precinct, he was paraded on the "perp walk" shackled in handcuffs for a photo op before his first court appearance Monday morning.
"I think it is humiliating, but if you don't want to do the perp walk, don't do the crime," the mayor bristled on Wednesday, not bothering to pause for caution in condemning DSK until the court had time to deliver its judgment.
"While the French excoriated the American system of justice -- discouraging pictures of Strauss-Kahn handcuffed, which are illegal in France -- Americans could pride themselves on the sound of the 'bum-bum' Law & Order: SVU gong sounding, the noise that heralds that justice will be done without regard to wealth, class or privilege," Maureen Dowd wrote in her op-ed column for The New York Times on Tuesday. "It's an inspiring story about America," she added primly, "where even a maid can have dignity and be listened to when she accuses one of the most powerful men in the world of being a predator." Normally tight-lipped law-enforcement types also seem unable to avoid venting their disdain for DSK whose every indignity -- including leaked photographs of him strapped into a "suicide vest" -- was broadcast, blow by humiliating blow.
"He will be strip-searched when he leaves Rikers Island. He will be strip-searched when he arrives in court. He's strip-searched when he leaves court, and he's strip-searched when he gets back to Rikers," Norman Seabrook, head of the correction officers' union boomed on Thursday morning when asked about the plan of action for the day. "When he arrives to the courthouse, he's going to be put in an isolated cell away from other inmates," Seabrook continued. "This is for fear that another inmate would try to kill him to make a name for himself."
Anyone wanting to make his or her name with this case would want to get in line. Destined to be the most watched criminal court-room spectacles America has witnessed since the OJ Simpson debacle, The People v. Strauss-Kahn, 1225782 is more likely to feature lawyers and witnesses taking a stab at outsmarting each other in the reputation-making or -breaking arguments that will pitch an extremely wealthy man against a woman described as a humble immigrant -- who at the time of the incident was living in an apartment block used exclusively by people wiht HIV or Aids-- and a lowly blue-collar attorney against a seasoned giant of Manhattan's legal community.
The spotlight will belong, for a while at least, to the alleged victim, a 32-year-old Guinean chambermaid for the Times Square Sofitel hotel. Until last Saturday, she lived in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium, where she worked a second job in a takeaway restaurant to support her teenage daughter. "She came from a country in which poor people had little or no justice," says her lawyer Jeff Shapiro, revealing when she arrived in the US under "very difficult circumstances" in 2004 the woman and her daughter were granted political asylum for reasons he doesn't yet know.
The child's father, Shapiro says, is dead, leaving his client and her daughter "very much alone in this world. Her life has now been turned upside down. She can't go home, she can't go back to work ... This has been nothing short of a cataclysmic event in her life".
Shapiro, who says his client is in a "safe place", described her condition after she gave evidence to the grand jury on Wednesday. "If you've had any experience with someone who has been traumatised by sexual assault, reliving it in your mind is hard enough," he said. "Having to recount it, even to a therapist, is difficult, much less having to talk about it on the record in front of a grand jury. I mean, it's extremely difficult, and nonetheless she's making it through this."
Shapiro, who insists this case is "nothing other than a physical, sexual assault by this man on this young woman", is a small-time personal injury and medical malpractice lawyer who is working the case pro-bono after being introduced to his client by a friend shortly after the alleged attack last weekend.
Educated at Columbia Law School, his case record shows a pattern of representing working-class clients against big business. His most successful monetary coup was a $22.1m award for a patient who sued her OB/GYN for perforating her bowel during a routine hysterectomy.
But Shapiro insists he won't be fazed by the big guns aimed in his direction. He believes he has the truth on his side. Like everyone else watching the case, Shapiro expects the defence to argue his client had consensual sex with DSK on the Saturday of last weekend. He points to seemingly contradictory evidence already collected by investigators such as information downloaded from the hotel suite door's electronic card reader which indicates the maid entered the room and never closed the door. Hotel policy, Shapiro points out, requires maids to leave the door open while cleaning. The open door, he says, is proof his client entered the room to work and not to engage in a romp.
While Shapiro's only past experience in dealing with the press appears to be commenting on cases for YouTube videos, his opponent Benjamin Brafman is a media superstar rated as "the man to have on speed-dial when you're in really big trouble" by New York magazine and "the single best courtroom attorney I've ever seen" by CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
A former assistant district attorney with a reputation for scoring acquittals for his celebrity clientele, Brafman initially made his name defending high-profile mobsters including Vincent "The Chin" Gigante and Sammy "The Bull" Gravano. He went mainstream after successfully defending P Diddy back when he was Puff Daddy,
charged with gun possession and bribery charges after a shoot-out in a Manhattan nightclub that was witnessed by more than 100 people. Brafman then handled the deal in which Jay-Z pleaded guilty to assaulting a record producer and was let off with three years' probation. He was also one of the lawyers who worked on the Michael Jackson case when the pop singer was acquitted on charges of child molestation.
"First of all, because of the high-profile nature of the case, he's clearly able to navigate the shoals of the media," says LA celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos, adding that Brafman will also be "perfectly attuned to understanding" the political nature of the DSK case.
"We believe this is a very, very defensible case," Brafman told DSK's first court hearing on Monday, refusing to so much as blink when Supervising Criminal Court Judge Melissa Jackson refused to grant his client bail.
Judge Jackson promises to defy any comparisons to Lance Ito. Appointed to the bench eight years ago by Bloomberg, she is the politically shrewd great-granddaughter of President Theodore Roosevelt and a granddaughter of late US Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Robert H Jackson, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Nazi war crimes trials.
A Fordham Law School graduate, Jackson served as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn for nearly 22 years, where she fearlessly led fraud and racketeering prosecutions. During her time on the Manhattan bench, she has ordered Courtney Love to stay off drugs (after the rocker tossed a microphone stand into a crowd) and dismissed disorderly conduct charges against Rosario Dawson (after the actress was arrested while filming a movie near the site of the 2004 Republican National Convention).
When Foxy Brown pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault charges in a 2004 fracas over a bill in a nail salon, Jackson sentenced her to three years' probation. She subsequently threw Foxy in jail for eight months when the singer violated that probation. Jackson also persuaded a man keeping a pet tiger in his apartment to plead guilty to reckless endangerment and last year she arraigned former NBA star Jayson Williams by video from his hospital bed on charges of drunkenly slamming his SUV into a tree.
Looming over the entire proceedings will be alpha male Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his formidable baggage,which Manhattan DA John McConnell told the court Thursday "is continuing to grow every day as the investigation continues".
Strauss-Kahn, who will remain under house arrest, a GPS bracelet locked onto his ankle, is due back in court on June 6, a date David Bookstaver, spokesman for the New York state court system, already has circled in his diary. "The last thing that came close to this," Bookstaver said after witnessing the media mob who showed up for Thursday's hearing, "was Mark David Chapman at his arraignment after shooting John Lennon".
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