Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and… (Allison Joyce, Reuters )
It's hard to know what to think about the drama unfolding in New York City, where the lead actors — an immigrant hotel maid and a powerful French politician — seem to have suddenly changed places.
When the show opened six weeks ago, the maid was a humble single mother, tragically wronged. Raised in a mud hut in a West African village, she had sought sanctuary in America after she was gang-raped and her husband killed, she said.
And Dominique Strauss-Kahn — a potential French presidential candidate — was a wealthy bully with a history of sexual faux pas, accused of attacking her while she cleaned his suite in a luxury hotel. In May, he was charged with attempted rape and sexual assault, and held on $6-million bond.
Then suddenly, on Friday, Strauss-Khan was set free. His accuser, it appears, is a liar and cheat.
She lied on her taxes and asylum application — claiming a child she didn't have and a gang rape in Guinea that never happened. Her bank records and a taped phone conversation with her jailed fiance suggest she consorts with criminals linked to drug-dealing operations.
Does that prove that she wasn't attacked and forced into sex by Strauss-Khan? No. But it does mean that his high-priced lawyers would tear her apart on the witness stand.
The prosecutors have DNA that shows that a sexual encounter occurred. Strauss-Khan says it was consensual. She was apparently overcome with desire at the sight of his paunchy, naked body. Am I the only one who finds that hard to believe?
But Strauss-Khan doesn't have to prove that he didn't try to rape her. Prosecutors have to prove that he did.
That means the "victim" is on trial in The People vs. Dominique Strauss-Khan. And her honor is our evidence.
Maybe not much has changed after all, despite 30 years of evolving sex crime laws. Lawyers can no longer badger a woman on the stand with questions about what kind of panties she wore or how many times she'd had sex before — questions that were routine in rape trials I covered years ago.
But the personal life of a rape victim is still considered fair game in too many cases, particularly when the issue is whether the sex act was by consent or involved force or threats of violence.
I understand the reluctance of prosecutors in the Strauss-Kahn case to go forward. Their office was stung in May by the unexpected acquittal in a high-profile case of two New York City cops accused of raping a drunken women after helping her into her apartment.
Jurors told the New York Times they didn't buy the cops' story that they had done nothing more than "snuggle" with the inebriated woman. But they didn't feel they could convict on the word of a woman with no DNA evidence and gaps in her liquor-clouded memories.
The Strauss-Kahn case presents a similar dilemma. How does a jury judge the veracity of a woman who would have to admit to years of lies and then attempt to explain away changes in her retelling of the alleged attack?
But then, Strauss-Kahn isn't squeaky clean, either. A novelist who says Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her 10 years ago announced this week that she intends to press for charges in her case. She was dissuaded from going public back then by his political allies — including her mother.
Strauss-Khan has a reputation in France as a womanizer. In America, we'd more likely consider his crude come-ons as the mark of a sexual harasser. But as one of his lawyers told our reporter, "He's a seducer, not an attacker."
Then give him a chance at seducing a jury. And let his discredited accuser — once deemed so convincing by prosecutors that she left hardened investigators in tears — have a chance to tell her story.
If prosecutors still believe that a sexual assault took place — and Monday's news stories make clear they do — then they ought to stop worrying about saving face and get their witness ready to appear in court.
This case is no longer just about what happened in that hotel room. It has become social and political theater, less entertaining but more important than the farcical drama of Anthony Weiner.
It's a public test, on an international stage, of the strengths and weaknesses of American justice when dealing with tricky sexual cases. You'd be hard-pressed to find better circumstances and players in a test case on a law school exam.
But this case requires more than abstract calculations about presumed credibility and trial outcome odds. Sex and scandal are at its center, but the public discussion is ranging far beyond that, to issues of power and greed and politics.
More than 1,000 readers weighed in on the New York Times' website Friday, after it broke the news of Strauss-Khan's release.
Some saw the focus on the maid's missteps as proof of an enduring double standard that tilts toward money and men.