It looks like my successor as New York district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., is suffering from some self-inflicted problems. Okay, I only played the New York DA on TV, and Vance is a real one, but his travails with his case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn remind me of my earlier days as a real prosecutor, and they illustrate the mixed bag of issues that a high-profile DA can face. Specifically, they remind me of what happens when a prosecutor doesn’t play things by the book and factors his own political problems into the equation.
At first, it must have seemed like a dream case to Vance’s office. Since taking over the DA’s job from the legendary Robert Morgenthau, Vance and his crew have been roundly criticized for failing to get convictions in several high-profile cases. The DSK case looked to be a real conversation changer. The head of the International Monetary Fund and leading contender to become the next president of France, Strauss-Kahn was accused by a maid at a posh New York hotel of sexually assaulting her. (Somewhere in America, someone is putting the finishing touches on a ripped-from-the-headlines Law and Order script.)
Strauss-Kahn tried to make a run for the border, but the cops took him off a plane, arrested him, and gave him the perp walk in handcuffs before a press mob. Faced with DNA evidence, Strauss-Kahn said that the sex was consensual. Vance, of course, held a press conference calling the charges “extremely serious” and supported by evidence; the defendant, after all, had a reputation as a womanizer and had been accused by a woman in France of attacking her. The story has all the elements of a global scandal: a titan of international finance, scandalous behavior in the global finance capital, and a crusading DA ready to stand up for the victim.
And of course, Vance did his part to keep the story going: He rushed to obtain an indictment in order to deny DSK bail. The IMF did its part by forcing Strauss-Kahn out of his job. And the media played its role: In the French papers, he was given up for dead, politically. It was front-page news everywhere.
And of course, the DA’s office basked in it all. But what the PR gods giveth, they can surely taketh away — and then some. It seems that the maid, an African immigrant, has some credibility issues, including lies she told to get into the country. Imagine that. She also supposedly didn’t tell the truth about what she did immediately after the attack. She had undeclared sums of money and a jailbird boyfriend. After the incident, she called the boyfriend and, according to the New York Times, described the attack to him, and then talked about DSK having plenty of money. Clearly, she wanted some of it.
Definitely some issues here. Not an unprecedented situation. Fatal to the government’s case? Possibly. Not necessarily.
The most remarkable thing about this case is this: Not only did the DA’s office bring the credibility issues to the attention of the judge, but it seems as if the entire New York law-enforcement community began leaking like a fire hydrant in order to destroy this alleged victim. The media is in full frenzy again, but this time over the takedown of this woman. The New York Post, with a leak from the police, called her a prostitute on its front page. I doubt if anyone has ever seen such a rapid, orchestrated, high-powered trashing by the law-enforcement community of someone whose credibility, along with that of other witnesses and the physical evidence, was enough for an indictment a few days earlier.
It is entirely possible that this woman is not a credible witness, and in the middle of her work day was simply overcome with passion at the sight of this middle-aged man. Or that he offered to pay her.
It is also possible that DSK knows how to choose his victims. We’ll never know, because it’s clear that the DA’s office panicked at no longer having a slam-dunk case. Instead, we have our Frenchman flying home across the pond, the case dropped, and his hometown media now treating him like a conquering hero. There probably was a rush to judgment in this case, but that’s not cured by a second rush to judgment in the alleged victim’s case, especially one fueled by anonymous leaks by law enforcement.
The lesson here is as clear as it is simple: We need more DAs with the courage and good sense to keep their mouths shut, take their time, and do their job.
You can be sure of one thing: This never would have happened if Arthur Branch were still running things.
— Fred Thompson, who represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003, is an actor, lawyer, and political commentator. His weekly commentaries also appear on his site, Fred Thompson’s America.