May 23, 2011
With the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, New York City has abruptly become the scene of two very different official approaches to investigating sex-crime cases, one traditional and one new. The new approach so far appears to be reserved for Strauss-Kahn alone.
Consider the first case: the ongoing trial of two police officers, Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, charged in the rape of a 27-year-old Manhattan woman. She was drunk, and, after helping her to enter her apartment, Moreno and Mata allegedly made a false emergency call so that they could return to her. At that point, the woman says, she woke periodically out of her intoxicated state to find herself being raped, face down, by Moreno, as Mata stood guard.
The alleged rape of a citizen by a police officer — and the alleged collusion of another officer — is surely a serious matter. But the charges and trial have followed an often-seen pattern: the men’s supporters have vociferously defended their innocence (the presumption of which has been scrupulously upheld in the press); the victim’s pink bra has been the subject of salacious speculation, and her intoxication has been used to undermine her credibility. As the wheels of justice grind unglamorously forward, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made no public statement supporting the victim’s side.
Moreover, Moreno and Mata have not been asked to strip naked for “evidence” photos, were not initially denied bail, and were not held in solitary confinement, and are not being strip-searched daily. Their entire case has followed the usual timetable of many months, as evidence was gathered, testimony compiled and arguments made.
Then there is the Strauss-Kahn approach. After a chambermaid reportedly told her supervisor at the elegant Sofitel hotel that she had been sexually assaulted, the suspect was immediately tracked down, escorted off a plane just before its departure, and arrested. High-ranking detectives, not lowly officers, were dispatched to the crime scene. The DNA evidence was sequenced within hours, not the normal eight or nine days. By the end of the day’s news cycle, New York City police spokespeople had made uncharacteristic and shockingly premature statements supporting the credibility of the victim’s narrative — before an investigation was complete.
The accused was handcuffed and escorted before television cameras — a New York tradition known as a “perp walk.” The suspect was photographed naked, which is also unusual, initially denied bail and held in solitary confinement. The Police Commissioner has boasted to the press that Strauss-Kahn is strip-searched now multiple times a day — also unheard-of.
By the end of the second day’s news cycle, senior public officials had weakened the presumption of innocence, a cornerstone of any civilized society’s justice system. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was calling for Strauss-Kahn’s resignation from the IMF, and Bloomberg remarked, in response to objections to Straus-Kahn’s perp walk, “don’t do the crime.” Whatever happened in that hotel room, Strauss-Kahn’s career, and his presumption of innocence, was effectively over — before any legal process had even begun.
If Strauss-Kahn turns out, after a fair trial, to be a violent sex criminal, may his sentence be harsh indeed. But the way in which this case is being processed is profoundly worrisome. In 23 years of covering sex crime — and in a city where domestic workers are raped by the score every month, often by powerful men — I have never seen the New York Police Department snap into action like this on any victim’s behalf.
Harriet Lessel, executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, agrees that this case has seen “a very quick and targeted response,” and points out that rape is “a grossly underreported crime” in New York. Worse, she says, many victims under other circumstances believe that the criminal justice system is unresponsive to their needs and more oriented toward ensuring that the innocent are not convicted.
While Lessel is quick to add that New York has “some great police officers and prosecutors who really care,” she says that the police do not normally issue public statements supportive of victims’ credibility, let alone early on, as they did with Strauss-Kahn’s accuser. Nor has she ever heard of someone being photographed naked as part of the evidence.
So what is happening here?
We now live in a world in which men like former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was investigating financial wrongdoing by the insurance giant AIG, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Strauss-Kahn — whose efforts to reform the IMF gained him powerful opponents — can be, and are, kept under constant surveillance. Indeed, Strauss-Kahn, who had been the odds-on favorite to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s French presidential election, probably interested more than one intelligence service.
This does not mean that Strauss-Kahn is innocent or that he is guilty. It means that policy outcomes can be advanced nowadays, in a surveillance society, by exploiting or manipulating sex-crime charges, whether real or inflated.
In other words, ours is increasingly an age of geopolitics by blackmail. Why, after all, were U.S. operatives asked to secure the “biometrics” and DNA of subjects abroad, as some of the U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks were revealed?
After Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, a caller to a New York radio talk show, who identified herself as a domestic worker in a New York luxury hotel, reported that “every week” a man in a towel accosts her, seeking sex. Another caller, a hotel manager, confirmed that this is a common way for male hotel guests to solicit sex. The New York Times flagged on its front page a report that hotel domestic workers are often targeted with clients’ requests for sex in exchange for money.
Are these men disgusting predators soliciting desperate, underpaid women? Yes. Is knowing about this economy relevant to the charges against Strauss-Kahn? Maybe.
Unfortunately, such questions may never be investigated, much less answered, for this is not being treated as a typical New York City sex-crime case. The authorities, perhaps with their own agenda, have publicly asserted a foregone conclusion; and that kind of intervention ultimately diminishes the chance of any one of us being able to rely on what used to be real American due process of law.