Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Can we please stop trying rape cases on the pages of Newsweek Magazine?

COMMENTARY: Last May, Newsweek showcased the "understaffed, underfunded, and overworked" cops of the NYPD Special Victims Division -- the cops who specialize in sex crimes -- by featuring their unit in a celebratory spread in the wake of "the most sensational alleged sex crime the NYPD has handled in years," the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape claim. ("To Catch a Creep.")

The Newsweek piece quoted the spokesman for the New York City Police Department who said, "in his best authoritative voice, 'Experienced detectives found the complainant’s story to be credible and continued to find it so.'” The story left no doubt that these extremely hard-working, knowledgable professionals had correctly adjudged DSK guilty.  It even suggested that the dastardly defense might actually go after the accuser's character.
 
The Newsweek piece did not discuss the fact that Mr. Strauss-Kahn had been photographed by police naked, initially denied bail, held in solitary confinement, and subjected to a most humiliating "perp walk" to satisfy amoral media types, much to the horror of our European brethren who thought it all barbaric. Nor did it note that the Police Commissioner even boasted to the press that Strauss-Kahn was strip-searched multiple times a day.

Naomi Wolf, for one, found it all troubling: "If Strauss-Kahn turns out, after a fair trial, to be a violent sex criminal, may his sentence be harsh indeed. But the way in which this case is being processed is profoundly worrisome. In 23 years of covering sex crime — and in a city where domestic workers are raped by the score every month, often by powerful men — I have never seen the New York Police Department snap into action like this on any victim’s behalf." 

And that was before the case all but imploded on the prosecutor.

The Newsweek piece last May contained a quote that proved to be ironic: "The last thing any detective wants, says Lt. Robert Johnson of Brooklyn Special Victims, 'is to paint someone with that rapist brush and find out they are not, because the paint never comes off.'”  If that is, indeed, the "last thing" any detective wants, then it is fair to ponder why the detectives were, in Newsweek's words, "quick to believe the maid’s story," in light of what happened later.

Prof. Alan Dershowitz just shook his head. "The story," he wrote, "is almost never what it appears to be on first impression."  But, too often, cops in sex units "are . . . agenda driven. Too often they believe they’re on a mission . . . . They’re zealots; I call them Nancy Grace prosecutors. She behaves on her TV talk show as if there’s no such thing as innocence; everybody arrested is guilty."

So what was the problem here?  Law enforcement did the right thing in treating the maid's claim seriously. Law enforcement did the right thing in investigating it thoroughly.  But law enforcement did not do the right thing in treating a presumptively innocent man as guilty. As Prof. Dershowitz put it bluntly, "the prosecutor messed up in speaking to the press, publicly vouching for the truth of the woman’s account and for her character." 

First, with a megaphone heard 'round the world, the prosecutor announced that he had nabbed a rapist. And DSK's life was ruined.

Then, when troubling information about the maid's credibility came to light, the prosecutor quickly distanced himself from her and un-vouched for her character, once again, in a public way. And Nafissatou Diallo (DSK's accuser) was ruined.

And now, to counteract the prosecutor's act of hanging her out to dry, Diallo has gone to -- who could have guessed it? -- Newsweek, where she tells her side of the story.  ("The Maid's Tale.")

In a case that likely will come down to credibility, Diallo's is more than a little suspect, and that might well be the end of the case.  But that's not even the point. The point is the rush to judgment that has become not just common but routine for the amoral news media and the Nancy Grace-like law enforcers when it comes to rape cases.  We saw it in Hofstra and in countless others.

Before a scrap of evidence has even been introduced, much less admitted, in a courtroom, the DSK case has been twice tried on the pages of Newsweek

Lost in the circus is the fact that a serious allegation about a potentially serious crime deserves to be handled in a serious manner, even if it appears that the accuser has serious credibility problems. And handling a rape claim seriously does not mean destroying the presumptively innocent man accused of the crime in the court of public opinion.

We would do well to recall an event that happened five years ago this coming December, when a North Carolina prosecutor was finally taken off the Duke lacrosse rape case. The North Carolina State Bar filed an ethics complaint against him -- his name was Mike Nifong -- citing more than 100 examples of public statements Nifong made to the media that had "a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused."

What legitimate purpose was served by destroying this man before he had his day in court?

I'll answer it:  none.  What happened to DSK was a travesty, and all persons of good will need to admit it.