For Strauss-Kahn's Alleged Victim, an Early Tribune

The 32-year-old immigrant woman has already acquired an outspoken lawyer named Jeffrey Shapiro. It's a good thing, too.


Reuters/Pool New

A subtle but significant thing happened Tuesday in the raucous sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the teetering chief of the International Monterary Fund: A lawyer for the alleged victim (reportedly a 32-year-old immigrant, and widow, from Guinea) immediately issued a public response to public suggestions by defense attorneys that if sexual conduct occurred between the accuser and the accused it was consensual.

Here is how The New York Times's fantastic crime correspondent, Willie Rashbaum, covered it along with his reporting colleagues late Tuesday:

During a hearing on Monday in Criminal Court in Manhattan, a lawyer for Mr. Strauss-Kahn, Benjamin Brafman, told a judge he believed the "forensic evidence" was "not consistent with forcible encounter."

Mr. Brafman did not disclose what forensic evidence he was referring to, or even if he had been apprised about what forensic evidence the prosecution had collected. Even so, that statement seemed to suggest the defense may acknowledge that a sexual encounter had occurred.

Indeed, on Tuesday, a person briefed on the case said the defense believed that any sex act may have been consensual.

That elicited an angry response from a lawyer for the woman. He dismissed any suggestion that the housekeeper, whom he described as "a very proper, dignified young woman," had agreed to have sex with Mr. Strauss-Kahn.

"There is no question this was not consensual -- she was assaulted and she had to escape from him, which is why when she finally got out of the room, she reported it to security immediately," said the lawyer, Jeffrey J. Shapiro. "It doesn't matter what Mr. Brafman says, and it doesn't matter what the defendant says. Her story is her story, which she has told to everyone who asked her, and she is telling the truth. She has no agenda."

Mr. Shapiro said his client "did not even know who this guy was" until she saw news accounts, adding, "She is a simple housekeeper who was going into a room to clean a room."

Because defense attorneys almost always try to slime alleged sex assault victims in one form or another, it's the second half of Rashbaum's account that is surprising and interesting to me. Here's a woman who already has had a tough life, living in a foreign country, suddenly at the center of an international scandal, arrayed against one of the world's most powerful and sophisticated men, and yet 72 hours after the alleged rape she has a voice, a tribune who can and will speak up for her in the court of public opinion. This does not always happen in these sorts of cases.

I wonder exactly how she arranged that so quickly? I wonder why she picked Shapiro (evidently an experienced personal injury and medical malpractice attorney in and around New York)? I wonder what financial arrangements he has made with his new client? He told the Times that no civil lawsuit against Strauss-Kahn has yet been "considered or discussed" but even if that's now true I suppose it's only a matter of time before such deliberations occur. Shapiro doesn't have to handle the criminal case, remember. All he has to do is protect his client from what's about to come.

The fact that the alleged victim has a forceful advocate doesn't make Strauss-Kahn any more innocent or guilty than he already is. It doesn't make the alleged victim's story any more reliable or credible. Those are questions that will have to be answered with real evidence before or during the trial. But Shapiro's entry onto the stage does provide to this drama a comforting level of equality over the ferocious pre-trial publicity that will surround the case until the first witness is sworn. It will not hereafter be a spin-fest dominated by unnamed law enforcement officials, or offensive international coverage, or bright, aggressive defense attorneys skilled in high-profile trials. The interests of the woman at the center of it all will, from time to time, be extrajudicially declared, too.

Yes, I know. Spin is spin is spin. One lawyer's spin necessarily deserves no more or less credence than any other lawyer's spin, especially out of court at the beginning of a case like this. (While the lawyers for the two individuals at the heart of this were spinning the consent issue, officials were spinning the present state of Strauss-Kahn's mental attitude by making sure everyone knew that the defendant is now on a suicide watch. What? You thought high-profile criminal trials were only two-sided spin affairs? What do you think "perp walks" are all about anyway?) And I wrote just Monday about how earnest followers of this tale should take everything they hear, especially at this stage of the proceedings, with a salt lick.

But I am not vouching here for the accuracy of what Shapiro is saying. I am not saying that he should be trusted or believed more than his defense counterparts or that any of the private lawyers in the case are going to do any more or any less than zealously represent their client's interests. I am saying only that it is a big deal that Shapiro is present in this case at this time to be able to say anything at all. Equal pre-trial publicity generates fairer trials, or at least the possibility of fairer trials, and that's always a challenge with a circus like this, especially with what's now ahead...

.... the consent issue. If Team Strauss-Kahn already is talking publicly about a potential consent defense it indicates there is physical or scientific evidence linking the two people together in a way that cannot innocently be explained away. The defense even hinted at this at Monday's bail hearing. Makes sense. Consent is essentially what any defendant would have to claim in those circumstances. But it also means that it won't likely be too long now before the defense starts sharing its view of why it believes the alleged victim, as a hotel maid, was consenting to some sort of sex with a complete stranger in a hotel room and why she now, by their account, would be lying about it. The private defense investigators, in fact, already have been hired.

We all know where this is going. And it's not going to be pretty.