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What DSK Affair means for sexual assault victims

 

A New York state supreme court judge ended one of the most high profile and sordidly-fascinating criminal cases in recent years on Tuesday.

In a mere 12 minutes, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former chief of the International Monetary Fund and potential French presidential candidate, was cleared of the charges that he sexually assaulted a hotel maid. 

The case against Strauss-Kahn rested on the testimony and the credibility of his accuser, Nafissatou Diallo. 

Diallo, a 33-year-old Guinean immigrant, claimed that Strauss-Kahn cornered her and sexually assaulted her as she attempted to clean his room. 

In the early days of the case, Diallo was the smoking gun for the prosecution. She was viewed as a sympathetic victim, a powerless woman taken advantage of by one of the most powerful men in the world. 

She gave interviews detailing her horrific past in Guinea, which included being raped and sexually assaulted by soldiers. This is the kind of “ripped from the headlines” drama the writers of “Law and Order: SVU” wait their whole lives for. 

Then everything changed. 

It turns out that Diallo’s account of her tragic past was all a lie. 

Diallo had given a very convincing, yet ultimately fraudulent, account of her past — what else could she very convincingly lie about? The one piece of evidence against Strauss-Kahn was Diallo’s testimony. Once that testimony had been questioned, the entire case unraveled. 

This case highlights the precarious nature of evidence and proof in sexual assault cases. Between encouraging victims to come forward and not convicting someone of a crime without evidence that proves their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, there is a difficult balance in these cases.

Most of the time, the only evidence is the victim’s testimony. It is then the credibility of the victim that is called into question, and it is usually extenuating circumstances that dictate that credibility. 

Things like past behaviors and crimes can severely impact whether the public and ultimately a jury will believe the victim. Unfortunately, in this instance, Diallo had been an incredibly believable victim. 

The prosecutor had no real evidence other than Diallo’s testimony, so there was nothing more to implicate Strauss-Kahn in the commission of a sexual assault. The prosecution has the burden to prove the charges against Strauss-Kahn beyond a reasonable doubt and was no longer able to meet that burden.

When a high profile sexual assault case like this is dismissed, it diminishes incentive for other victims to come forward. 

In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes, and 60 percent of those sexual assaults are never reported to the police. That is a truly troubling statistic, and false accusations like Diallo’s only hurt the real victims of sexual assault who are now perhaps even less likely to come forward. 

While the correct outcome may have been reached in the instance of Strauss-Kahn, if it discourages the reporting of future sexual assaults, it would be a backwards step for the justice system. 

In the murky waters of balancing justice and victims’ rights in sexual assault cases, there are no winners. 

Except perhaps the writers of Law and Order: SVU, who got an even better story than they originally thought. 

 

Brittany Sharkey is a second-year law student from Oceanside, Calif. She graduated from NYU in 2010 with a degree in politics.

Follow her on Twitter @brittanysharkey.