Can DSK Expect a Fair Trial?

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Deference to the politically powerful is a hideous trait, not least when it leads to a code of silence (de facto or de jure) about improper conduct. I can see why Americans are pleased that Strauss-Kahn has been denied the privileges of rank that France would no doubt have accorded him. On the other hand, you have to wonder what the presumption of innocence is worth in a case like this in the United States. Press and television are tirelessly laying out evidence for the prosecution--untested facts, leaks of dubious provenance, and assorted rumour and innuendo--before a salacious and semi-attentive public. In Britain and Europe much of this would be contempt of court. And so it should be, if the presumption of innocence means anything.

It's disgusting, but I don't think it means a fair trail is impossible. When I did jury service for the first time at the Old Bailey a few years ago--a case of aggravated burglary (ie, with violence)--I changed my mind about what one can expect of a jury. I had naively expected high standards of professional competence from the court, but thought the jury might struggle to do a good job. It was just the opposite. The prosecutor seemed to have been handed the brief as he entered the court. He was unacquainted with his own case. The defense dealt pointlessly (or suspiciously) with inessentials. The rules of evidence seemed mainly designed to deny the jury important information that, in its ignorance, it might misunderstand. The jury was engaged, gravely aware of its responsibility, and diligent in filtering out its own prejudices and considering only the facts. I'm sure DSK's jury will do the same, despite the best efforts of the media to make that difficult.

The more disgraceful aspect of the pre-trial circus is that we seem to have moved directly from accusation to punishment, without the inconvenience of an intervening trial. The gratuitously theatrical perp walk is nothing but the modern US equivalent of putting somebody into the stocks. I don't know if it's egalitarian. (As a punishment, it hurts the famous more, obviously.) Regardless, it is wrong. "Perp" is not short for "accused" or "suspect". We still don't know whether DSK is a perp.

Another thing I find curious about the way this case is being reported: if DSK is found guilty, he will be guilty of a disgusting crime, not of straying over a fuzzy line between permissible and impermissible conduct. I am astonished by the amount of commentary I read that says, in effect, "What do you expect of the Great Seducer?" What, I would like to know, do these squalid accusations have to do with seduction? And how many pieces in recent days have linked the DSK case with the Arnold Schwarzenegger scandal under the heading of "men behaving badly"? I agree with this article by Juliet Williams. Something has gone terribly wrong if we see a mere sex scandal as lying close on the same scale to a seven-count indictment for criminal sexual assault.

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