Rush to Misjudgment?

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Illustration by Paul Sahre for TIME

High-profile criminal cases are Rorschach tests: observers bring their own ideas about the world to an often murky set of facts. When O.J. Simpson was arrested for murder, people's view of his case frequently depended on whether they believed that black men can't get a fair shake in the American justice system or that rich celebrities can get away with anything. The arrest in New York City of Dominique Strauss-Kahn for an alleged sexual assault against a hotel maid set in motion a conflict between two values that most right-thinking people hold strongly. One is that a woman must not be dismissed when she accuses a man of rape. The other is that a person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven otherwise in court.

Strauss-Kahn, who was the head of the International Monetary Fund until his arrest forced him to step down, was a Master of the Universe. His accuser was a 32-year-old single mother, an immigrant from the West African nation of Guinea, who cleaned rooms at a Manhattan luxury hotel. She seemed like just the sort of victim a powerful man would have no trouble steamrolling.

There is a long history of women who have been ignored or worse when they dared charge a powerful man with rape. One of the great victories of the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s was reforming how rape cases are handled. States passed rape shield laws, which barred defense lawyers from cross-examining women about their sexual history. States also dropped requirements that there be corroborating evidence beyond the victim's testimony. These reforms were much needed, and they helped victims get fairer treatment in the courts. But changes in the law cannot solve a fundamental problem: sexual-assualt cases often boil down to the victim's word against the accused's, and those clashes are not always easy to resolve.

Many observers of the Strauss-Kahn case began with a strong belief that the woman's charges must be taken seriously and that her identity must be protected. While the French press published the accuser's name (Paris-Match even used it in a headline), American media did not. But many people — often the same people — were worried about Strauss-Kahn's rights as well. His arrest was followed by a "perp walk," in which he was paraded in handcuffs before a scrum of photographers — an American tradition that hardly seems presumptive of innocence. Then came the trial by media: leaked allegations that he made passes at two concierges at the hotel before the incident with the maid, that he hurled a crude comment at a flight attendant on the plane he was removed from, that his semen was found on the maid's clothing.

All the assumptions about who the injured party was in this situation were made infinitely more complicated when word leaked to the press that the prosecution's case was unraveling. The Manhattan district attorney's office was reported to have new information that undermined the accuser's credibility, including evidence that not long after the alleged assault, she called a boyfriend in an immigration jail in Arizona and told him, in words roughly translated from her native Fulani language, "Don't worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I'm doing."

The same day the prosecutors made this admission in court, Strauss-Kahn, who had been living under court-ordered home confinement, was released without bail. Now a plea bargain or even the dismissal of all charges against him seems likely. The maid's supporters argue that even if she has not led a blameless life, she still may have been sexually assaulted and the trial of Strauss-Kahn should go forward. Either way, it seems unlikely that anyone will ever prove beyond the shadow of a doubt what happened in that Sofitel room.

More likely is that the encounter will produce spin-off courtroom drama. A 32-year-old French writer has filed criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn for, she alleges, sexually assaulting her in 2003. She says she complained about the incident at the time but was persuaded not to press charges. Strauss-Kahn has threatened to file criminal slander charges against the woman. The Sofitel maid, for her part, has filed a libel suit against the New York Post for a series of articles that asserted that she was a prostitute, including one on July 2 with the headline "Maid Cleaning Up as Hooker.' "

Strauss-Kahn's case once appeared to have all the makings of a classic morality tale. Now it is at best a messy one — and a reminder of how hard it is in cases like this to be absolutely fair to both the accuser and the accused.

Cohen, a former member of the New York Times editorial board, is a lawyer who teaches at Yale Law School