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Credibility of accuser key to Strauss-Kahn case

Investigators had to make a snap judgment about the accuser in the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn -- haste that may have contributed to the unraveling of the case.
/ Source: Reuters

Investigators had to make a snap judgment about the accuser in the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn -- haste that may have contributed to the unraveling of the case.

Strauss-Kahn was on board a Paris-bound jet that was about to take off when he was arrested.

"Does he (District Attorney Cyrus Vance) arrest immediately or does or conduct an in-depth investigation before a decision to arrest is made?" said Paul Callan, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn who represented the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson in a civil case against O.J. Simpson.

Most sex-assault cases hinge on the competing versions of what happened between the accused and the victim, and prosecution becomes particularly troublesome -- as it has for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office -- if the accuser turns out to have a history of lying.

In this case, credibility came into play quickly, on the day the alleged crime occurred, May 14. With Strauss-Kahn about to leave the country, investigators had to balance the accuser's story against his looming departure.

They decided to believe the housekeeper, and for days, police and prosecutors kept trumpeting the credibility of the accuser, saying her story remained convincing and consistent. Some time over the ensuing weeks, her credibility fell apart.

A source close to the case said that the district attorney's office took the case to a grand jury without fully checking out the woman was bona fide.

"Just about everything that was reported on this woman early on was untrue but no one checked or wanted to believe anything else," the source told Reuters on Thursday night.

The case against Strauss-Kahn now appears seriously imperiled after prosecutors acknowledged in a letter to Strauss-Kahn's defense attorneys on Thursday that the accuser had lied and made inconsistent and contradictory statements to prosecutors, immigration officials, and a grand jury investigating her allegations.

The case provides a stark reminder that most sex-crime prosecutions come down to a "he said, she said" scenario in which the accuser's credibility is key to a successful prosecution.

"If they are untruthful or lied once, their whole testimony is in question," said Charles Ferzola, a former assistant district attorney in Nassau County, New York, who is a criminal defense lawyer.

Strauss-Kahn's accuser does have a history of lying, according to prosecutors.

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Michael Obus on Friday released Strauss-Kahn from house arrest and returned $6 million in bail to him. Following the hearing, Vance acknowledged his office's "investigation raised concerns about the complaining witness's credibility," but said that the prosecution would continue.

Rape shield laws generally prevent defense attorneys from cross-examining victims about their past sexual behavior. The purpose is to keep the accuser from being re-victimized by defense attorneys who want to shift blame.

Although jurors don't want to see the victim portrayed like she "asked for it," they do want guidance, and information about credibility provides that guidance, said Rodney Uphoff, professor of criminal law at the University of Missouri School of Law.

"If jurors are sitting there, and they see two people who have relayed an incident differently, and they see no other way to figure out what happened, they are looking for some help," Uphoff said.

One of the accuser's inconsistencies detailed in the letter concerned statements that she had been gang-raped back in her native Guinea. She later admitted lying about it to help win U.S. asylum, but said she had been raped in another incident, the letter stated.

Whether a judge would allow evidence of the false gang-rape claim in a trial is unclear, Uphoff said, but it was appropriate for prosecutors to tell defense attorneys.

In cases of this magnitude, Ferzola said, the prosecutors were better off enduring the embarrassment of coming forward with information about the accuser's credibility now than having it surface on cross-examination by Benjamin Brafman, Strauss-Kahn's experienced and hard-hitting defense attorney.

"The district attorney's office does not want to look silly when she takes the stand and gets ripped apart," he said. "They know better."

Ferzola also noted that the district attorney's job is to help determine the truth, even if it undermines the prosecution's case.