Investigating a Sex Crime: What the IMF's Strauss-Kahn Can Expect

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IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in a holding area before his arraignment in federal court in New York City on May 16, 2011

The case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has shocked both sides of the Atlantic and much of the world. The official charges filed against him in a New York City court include: two counts of criminal sexual act in the first degree; one count of attempted rape; and one count each of sexual abuse in the first degree, unlawful imprisonment in the second degree, sexual abuse in the third degree and forcible touching. In an interview with TIME's Ruth Davis Konigsberg, Linda Fairstein, the former chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit of the New York County District Attorney's Office (and author of Silent Mercy) explains what that all means and what's next for Strauss-Kahn, who has been denied bail and is now in jail on Rikers Island awaiting a grand-jury hearing.

What's the difference between a criminal sexual act and sexual abuse?
The two charges of criminal sexual act are what used to be called "sodomy" and refer to the oral sex [that Strauss-Kahn allegedly forced a hotel worker to perform on him at the Sofitel in midtown Manhattan]. Sexual abuse in the third degree is a misdemeanor touching, it's a far less serious crime, it may have been the first time he grabbed her and touched her buttocks or breasts or some sexual part but without the force needed to drag her down the hall.

So the two charges of "criminal sexual act" is attempted oral sex?
No, it was completed oral sex. The only thing that was attempted was vaginal penetration, which is attempted rape.

Did the New York district attorney's office do a good job with the charges?
Yes, as I would have expected them to. The Manhattan special-victims squad was one of the first formed in the country (the first two formed in the country were in New York and L.A. in 1972). They're very experienced detectives. I led that unit for 26 of my 30 years [with the D.A.'s office], and the one unusual thing we pioneered was the technique of partnering very closely with the police department. We worked very hard to make sure that the legal pieces, which include crimes charged, be consistent and supported by the evidence.

Does that mean they already have DNA evidence?
No, all they need is the credible word of a witness. They don't need DNA to charge a crime. If they have it, it's a nice extra, so that's the work that gets done now to see if the DNA matches. DNA on bedsheets in his hotel room would not necessarily be incriminating. If the DNA, for example, is on her clothing, that's very incriminating, so the DNA testing will be done.

But the DNA has been collected?
Yes. The crime-scene unit was dispatched to the hotel room and would have processed everything in the room and presumably all of the clothing of the complaining witness.

What else has happened to her?
She witnessed a lineup on Sunday. She had to pick him out among six men, and she did that successfully. She was probably immediately interviewed by precinct police who would have responded first and then would have referred her to the special victims unit.

What does she face next?
She will be offered counseling if she wishes, and as evidence and facts are analyzed, she'll continue to be questioned, and then she'll have to testify before a grand jury, which will determine if there's going to be an indictment. If his lawyer doesn't get him out with a new bail application, then the grand-jury presentation will be this week.

What about him?
Until then, he'll be in a holding cell on Rikers Island. He's got a very good lawyer; they will marshal all information they can in his favor and present to the judge a renewed bail application. I assume bail might be set at some point at a very high amount but still something he could make.

What do you think about French pundits who have suggested that it's a setup?
One has to look at the possibility. I think he's been saying for a long time that his enemies would do that because one of his problems has been women. You can't close your eyes to the fact that this is a politically powerful man with a lot of enemies, so of course you consider every angle, but that doesn't mean you slow down the case. If you think you've got a credible witness and done everything you can, you go ahead, but you investigate every plausible angle.

But is a setup even plausible?
It would be more likely to me if the young woman involved got her job last week when Strauss-Kahn made his hotel reservation.

Do you think she knew who he was?
I have no more idea than you. That's one thing to find out. How many days had he been there? Had she been to the room before this? She would have had to know since it was a $3,000-a-night room that this was a pretty important person.

There is a report that he's saying he has an alibi, that he went and had lunch with his daughter at 12:30 p.m.
You know what's interesting about that — and again, the good prosecutors and police that we have here will check — is that there are so many ways to prove and disprove a timeline in this day and age. All restaurants have time stamps on receipts. Hotels that use card systems of opening doors are linked to a computer — we call it interrogating a lock — so there's a record every time the door is opened. If he was at the daughter's house for lunch, that's harder to prove or disprove, and a family alibi is not a great alibi, because of course your daughter, your wife, your sister is going to say anything. I would be looking at all of the modern technology that can help prove or disprove the timeline. He also might have committed the crime, gone to lunch with his daughter, and then gone to the airport in order to set up the alibi. People do that too.