In a packed courtroom on the 13th floor of 100 Centre Street, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, dressed in a black suit, stood before Judge Michael J. Orbus and calmly said "not guilty." Although he didn't say much else, the defense that the former director of the IMF and his lawyers who proclaimed his plea a "powerful statement" of his innocence will now most likely begin building is that his encounter with the Sofitel employee was consensual.
Early indications including leaks that the evidence against Strauss-Kahn includes DNA samples from the housekeeper's uniform, which was followed by a statement from Strauss-Kahn's lawyers that they have "substantial information" that could "gravely undermine" the credibility of the accuser have already suggested that both sides are gearing up for a protracted, complex and messy battle. Already the spectacle has the class conflicts of The Bonfire of the Vanities, the legal star power of the O.J. Simpson trial and the graphic details of the Starr Report. But as unusual as many aspects of this case will be people indicted for attempted rape don't usually have as deep of pockets as this defendant legal experts say that in many regards, what happens next will come out of the sex-crimes-litigation playbook, beginning with the defense.
"They can't take the position that nothing happened, so I think that they're going with some version of it being consensual," says Bob Bennett, a former federal prosecutor and defense attorney who represented Bill Clinton against Paula Jones' sexual-harassment suit. Strauss-Kahn's trial lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, will try to craft a narrative matching that explanation and will attempt to discredit the housekeeper's version of events by casting doubt on her reliability or motives. To that end, Strauss-Kahn's team has reportedly hired private detectives from Guidepost Solutions, an investigations and security firm, to dig up information on his accuser. "They will try to find every former employer, every co-worker, every neighbor, every babysitter, every parent of other kids in her child's school," says Linda Fairstein, former chief of the sex-crimes unit of the Manhattan DA's office. "It will become a very personal attack on her to undermine her that's what they're already on the road to assembling. It's often, throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. In the long run, they're trying to make the jury not believe her."
As the case enters the discovery period, the prosecution will also go into investigation mode and, if it goes to trial, will attempt to use Strauss-Kahn's history and personality against him, particularly now that more women have come forward claiming he engaged in sexual misconduct. Whether or not this type of evidence or testimony will be admissible is largely up to the judge. "A judge would let [something] in if she feels or he feels it's probative, that it's likely to support a finding of what occurred in this case," Bennett explains. "I imagine there will be a big fight about that." (Of Orbus, the judge handling the case, Fairstein says, "He's very smart, very tough and very fair. It's rare that you get all three of those qualities at once.")
The defense has a few other options, like questioning police procedure or the methods of evidence collection, which was crucial in O.J. Simpson's acquittal on murder charges. "This is a very talented defense team," says Fairstein. "Brafman is very skilled, and will attack on every level possible."
Although the case was originally assigned to a young prosecutor named Artie McConnell, the district attorney's office has since added two senior lawyers, Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, who won a conviction for the high-profile murder of real estate broker Linda Stein, and Ann Prunty, who prosecuted the murder of Columbia Law School student Lynda Hong in 2000 by her ex-boyfriend Edmund Ko. The team will look to bolster the alleged victim's version of events by highlighting anything that suggests that the encounter was not consensual. "One thing that will be very important is, what did she do immediately after this?" says Bennett. "Did she report it? What did she look like? Did she look like nothing unusual happened, or did she look all upset and flustered? Depending on what that evidence shows, that will either corroborate or not her oral testimony."
As to the possibility of both sides reaching a plea agreement, the likelihood of that happening anytime soon seems slim. "I think generally speaking, the government would not offer very much this early unless they had an incredibly weak case. And the defense would not be willing to enter a plea this early until they've explored all of the various avenues," says Bennett. "Nobody's going to put their best deal on the table right now. It's going to have to play out some."