The startling turnaround in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affaire has nothing to do with what happened May 14 in the now famous Sofitel hotel room 2806. It is all about the credibility of the plaintiff, the Guinean housekeeper who has accused "DSK" of sexual assault. For the American judicial system, in its Protestant and Puritan culture, lying is considered absolutely unacceptable.
According to the revelations in the New York Times, and subsequent details from prosecutors, there was a healthy amount of incoherence in the statements of the Sofitel Hotel employee.
"The American system is based on truth," explains Arthur Dethomas, a Parisian lawyer who is also a member of the New York bar. "Litigants take an oath, they swear not to lie, even in matters that involve themselves. In France, on the contrary, a person who is testifying on his own case is not required to be sworn in, because it is assumed that he can protect himself."
The French system thus gives the accuser a sort of "right to lie." In court, before any statement is recorded, the witnesses are questioned about their connections with the individuals involved in the case. Are they close friends or relatives? Have they had any connection of dependence on them, such as a salary?
According to Dethomas, the revelations mark a decisive turn of events in the investigation. "It has to do with an unexpected affair in a closed room, between two individuals," says the lawyer. "The accusation rests on a sexual encounter between them. For a rape to be established, there must be an absence of consent. If the person who claims to have not given consent ceases to be credible, it's over. Even the fact that she possibly lied on a federal document, the application she filled out for refugee status, would be a felony, a perjury sufficient enough to disqualify everything else she says."
U.S. Justice Works Both Ways
Between France and the United States, the differences in judicial philosophy and practice, notably concerning the status of the victim, explains part of the incomprehension coming from this side of the Atlantic. But so too does the soap opera of a judicial procedure that has taken place since the beginning in New York against Dominique Strauss-Kahn: his being paraded before the media, handcuffed in front of the cameras, his three-day temporary detention, then the heavy weight given to the prosecution, in contrast to the tactical silence of the defense. "In its brutality, the American justice system works both ways," says a Parisian lawyer.
For his part, Patrick Baudoin, a lawyer as well as the honorary president of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), listened rather incredulously to the avalanche of commentaries since the latest turn of events. "One thing struck me: as soon as certain unfavorable, thorny elements were discovered in the past history of the plaintiff, it was deduced that her testimony no longer stands."
Baudoin himself encountered the ways of the American justice system when he defended the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of having wanted to participate in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The comparison between the United States and France prompted him to distinguish justice from public life. "In terms of public morality, it is much better in the United States," he notes. "In France, there is much more leeway and allowance for half-truths. However, in terms of law, it is striking to see what is going on in the United States from one extreme to another. We saw a vilified and reviled DSK who was being dragged through the mud. Suddenly, the victim, who contrary to the French system is merely a witness and not a plaintiff, is discredited."
The lie is not only a "mortal sin" inside the courtrooms of America. It is also devastating in front of the cameras. In 1998, Bill Clinton was nearly thrown out of office through an impeachment procedure for having been accused of perjury in the Monica Lewinsky affair. He was not criticized for having a sexual relation with his assistant, but for having lied about it.
In the same way and more recently, the Democratic representative Anthony Weiner had to resign from his position in Congress on June 21. He had sent risqué photos of himself in his underwear through his Twitter account. But the reason for his fall was caused by his first version of the facts, which were misleading and dishonest. He had pretended that his account was hacked. This insupportable line of defense forced him, within a few days, to backtrack and confess with sobs in his voice in front of the cameras. It was already too late.
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