The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case has been in flux since it began. Following has been a bit like flipping through TV channels: one minute you’re looking at a detective show, the next minute a family drama, the next a classic movie. The characters keep changing, too. Nafissatou Diallo, the immigrant maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of assault, has herself been accused of prostitution and immigration fraud. And the story just won’t go away. As I write this, Diallo has just filed a civil suit at New York State Supreme Court in the Bronx seeking damages from Strauss-Kahn for having “humiliated, degraded, violated and robbed” her of “her dignity as a woman.”
The opening scenes of the case played out like an old-fashioned police procedural. The alleged assault took place off-screen. Strauss-Kahn first came into view hurrying out of his room at the Sofitel with a suspicious ring of toothpaste around his mouth. He then had a fish-and-white-wine lunch with his daughter before heading out to the airport. Meanwhile the hotel maid told her story to the cops, who ran after Strauss-Kahn and hauled him off his plane in handcuffs. Strauss-Kahn acted every inch the aggrieved aristocrat, alternately claiming to have diplomatic immunity, demanding to speak with the French consulate, and complaining that his handcuffs were on too tight. Police threw him in Riker’s Island jail to wait for his bail hearing.
I went down to the courthouse to take a look at him. There was a long line of journalists waiting outside of the room where Strauss-Kahn’s bail hearing was to take place. The younger journalists were camped out on the floor, and the court officers had set up a velvet rope in front of the door. They had a guest list, too: they moved Big Media to the front of the line while the rest of us rabble waited back by the bathrooms. This led to a certain amount of posturing. “Don’t you know who I am?” one of the Newsweek reporters asked a bailiff, unconsciously echoing what Strauss-Kahn is supposed to have asked the maid.
What theater makes you watch the actors from behind? Only the judge faced us. Everyone else—the defendant, his family, and both teams of lawyers—faced the judge, playing to him and waiting eagerly for his responses.
If the courtroom is the theater, it’s also worth keeping an eye on the wings. A side door opened and two bailiffs led in Strauss-Kahn, fresh from Riker’s and bull-faced, in a gray suit. Another door opened, and another bailiff ushered in Strauss-Kahn’s millionaire wife Anne Sinclair and daughter, Camille. They were both in black and very elegant; as they sat down, a little gasp went around the room. We looked at their hair, their manicures. One French journalist got thrown out of the room for trying, to strike up a conversation with them.
As time passed,we started to whisper to each other. Rumors spread from one reporter to the next. Somebody in the front row had seen Strauss-Kahn kiss his hand at his wife. But had anyone seen Camille smile? They stayed calm and chilly, as if they were totally unaware of us. That’s why we needed to chatter: they were so understated that we had to breathe life into every one of their movements for them.
When the DA said that Strauss-Kahn had “shown a propensity to criminal conduct,” the defendant shook his head. When the DA said that Strauss-Kahn had “global influence, which gives him access to enormous wealth and connections,” Strauss-Kahn looked down at the table in front of him; and when the DA said that nobody knew how much money Anne Sinclair had, I saw her fidget with her jacket collar.
No one spoke at all besides the lawyers and the judge, and they used the driest possible language. Yet this was an utterly engrossing show. Of course there was the promise of more to come.
About a month went by. Strauss-Kahn resigned from the IMF. He seemed to be settling into house arrest. He was observed sunning himself in his Tribeca apartment. Delivery boys complained that he’d under-tipped him. Generally, the news slowed down. So the press was more than ready when it came time for him to enter his not-guilty plea in June.
This time, there were little white tents all over the place outside Manhattan Criminal Court, where camera crews sat waiting for subjects to interview. Reporters with badges and microphones wandered back and forth, gossiping and waiting for a press conference.
Local 6, which represents the hotel workers, was staging a big demonstration. There were women in maids’ uniforms from the Hilton and restaurant staff in black T-shirts fron the Parliament Hotel. Others came in their union shirts. They were from the Caribbean, from Asia, from Africa; they talked to each other in Spanish and French and Chinese. They were very well organized. As Strauss-Kahn walked out of court (it took all of seven minutes for him to enter his not-guilty plea) one of the workers spotted him. They all started to chant, “Shame on you! Shame on you!”
Afterwards, the protesters stood around chatting in little clumps. “We’re here to support our sister,” one woman told me. Many of them had stories of their own about walking in on naked men in hotel rooms. Nobody doubted that Strauss-Kahn had attacked the Sofitel maid. “Who are we going to believe—a hard-working woman, or a rich man?” they said. I stood there trying to remember the last time I’d seen such a satisfying protest. Even the hot dog vendors, standing curbside, had a certain glow to them.
This sense of unity prevailed for a while. For weeks, the papers were full of stories about arch-villain Strauss-Kahn, louche French morality, and the hard-working women he’d attacked over the years. Even Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers were vilified after the press reported they’d been spotted in Guinea trying to bribe the maid’s family to get her to drop the case.
But then things fell apart. It suddenly seemed as if a new story had been spliced onto the old one. At the end of June, the DA’s office announced that there would be a hearing in the Strauss-Kahn case the next day. Hours later, the New York Times ran two stories: the first suggesting that prosecutors were going to free Strauss-Kahn from house arrest, the second saying that there were major “credibility” issues with the Sofitel maid. The paper (citing a “source” at the DA’s office) now claimed she had lied about being raped in the past and had been caught plotting with a friend about how she could profit from the Strauss-Kahn incident.
By nine AM on July 1, the 13th floor of Manhattan Criminal Court was full of tense reporters, reading and re-reading the latest news on their phones. Some of them had flown back from summer vacations. Others were filling in for a senior court reporter. Most were either complaining about how little they knew or holding forth about the rights and wrongs of recent rape cases. By this time nobody thought the case would go to trial. The French reporters blustered and said, more or less, “I told you so.” Old fights resurfaced about the value of the perp walk and the difference between French and American justice.
Inside the courtroom, everything seemed to have been settled already. Strauss-Kahn strode in, bright-faced, and stood confidently throughout the hearing. The DA stood up and said he was prepared to consent to all the defense’s demands. The defense moved to release Strauss-Kahn from home arrest. The judge ordered it done, and Strauss-Kahn walked out of the room arm in arm with his wife. Everything was perfectly orchestrated; the whole process took no more than fifteen minutes. Outside, there were no maids protesting.
Since that day, the situation has been fizzling. Two court appearances have been canceled. Diallo, trying to make up lost ground, has made a series of rather unconvincing TV appearances in which she talked about her suffering but couldn’t address the inconsistencies in her story. Now, she’s filed a civil complaint, which is widely taken to mean that she’s giving up on the criminal case.
It’s a shame. Whatever Diallo’s background or personal motives, there is plenty of forensic evidence indicating that a violent sexual encounter took place in that hotel room. It would have been wonderful to see the DA’s office prosecute the case as strongly as possible in the setting of criminal court. But there must be more to our legal system than grand scenes; we must protect all victims of assault, whether or not we like the way they live their lives. If there’s a place in our culture for bland, rigorous fairness, that place is in our courts. They ought to keep running even after the picture show packs up and rolls out of town.
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