Monday, July 11, 2011

Cases Often Rest on Shaky Witnesses

Prosecutors routinely pursue cases that rely on witnesses with credibility problems similar to those dogging the accuser of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn because jurors can accept that someone can lie about one thing and tell the truth about another, legal experts say.

Prosecutors have raised questions about the credibility of the maid who has admitted lying to authorities about a range of matters, according to a court filing. The 32-year-old Guinean immigrant maintains she was sexually attacked, her lawyer says. Attorneys for Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who has pleaded not guilty, have said the charges should be dropped. Prosecutors say they haven't decided how to proceed in the case.

The lawyer for the woman—a maid at the Sofitel hotel where she reported the alleged attack—said Sunday the case should go forward, despite acknowledgments by his client that she gave inaccurate statements to gain asylum in the U.S., among other inconsistencies. "The bottom line is this: You don't have to be Mother Teresa to be a victim of a crime," said Kenneth Thompson in an interview.

The main challenge for the prosecutors in this case would be to distinguish between the maid's overall credibility and the veracity of her statements about the incident, experts say. "Credibility issues often exist. That doesn't mean the prosecutor automatically drops the case," said Gerald Shargel, a top criminal defense lawyer in New York. "Weighing the strengths of a case is not singularly focused on credibility problems. The case is like mosaic. You have to look at everything."

Mr. Thompson said the woman conveyed the alleged assault to at least five people immediately after the incident in room 2806, contradicting the account by authorities investigating the case. The woman ran into the hall, he said, and told a supervisor. The supervisor called her manager, who also arrived to listen to the woman's account. The manager then called hotel security officials and two of them interviewed the woman on the hotel's 28th floor. The woman then told her story to a hotel security supervisor, Mr. Thompson said.

"There are people who had no stake in this," he said. "They assessed the situation independent of each other and came to the same conclusion, that she was sexually assaulted."

A spokeswoman for the prosecutors declined to comment on Mr. Thompson's account Sunday.

"The question isn't whether there is political support for a prosecution or whether [the accuser] is sympathetic, the question is whether she is telling the truth and that is up to the prosecutors," said William W. Taylor, who is representing Mr. Strauss-Kahn along with Benjamin Brafman.

A law-enforcement official familiar with the matter said the woman resumed cleaning before telling a supervisor whom she met by chance while getting fresh sheets for Mr. Strauss-Kahn's room.

Prosecutors began worrying about the woman's credibility after Mr. Thompson alerted them to inaccuracies in her asylum application. She had told prosecutors a fake story about being gang-raped and falsely claimed someone else's child as her own to obtain a tax benefit, according to a court filing by prosecutors.

There is physical evidence to support her account of the incident at the Sofitel, prosecutors have said. Compared to most sexual-assault cases, some legal experts say that there is already enough evidence based on what has been disclosed publicly to take the case to trial and let a jury decide whether the sexual contact on May 14 was forced.

Lawyers for Mr. Strauss-Kahn have indicated that any sexual contact didn't involve force.

"We have more here than we have in most sex crimes," said Assistant District Attorney Joan Iluzzi-Orbon, one of the prosecutors in the case, in a recent interview. "The period of time that this happened is completely consistent with what she told us happened."

Some advocates for women and crime victims say prosecutors should pursue the case if there is any reason to believe the maid's story about the incident, pointing out that prosecutors routinely use witnesses with questionable backgrounds.

In mob and insider-trading cases, for example, people who have pleaded guilty to serious felonies or have told lies, have often testified successfully for prosecutors. The 1992 testimony of Sammy Gravano, a one-time mafia underboss, helped convict John Gotti, the head of the Gambino crime family, even though Mr. Gravano wasn't considered entirely trustworthy.

Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University and a criminal-law expert, speaking generally said, "People lie on asylum applications—they sometimes have a lot of pressing financial incentive to do so."

Other legal experts say cases with such credibility issues become problems at trial, especially during cross-examination. Even the asylum application "is an insurmountable hurdle," said criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos, whose clients included Michael Jackson.

Investigators are continuing to dig further into her background and personal relationships, according to people familiar with the situation.

Relations have broken down between prosecutors and Mr. Thompson, the maid's attorney. He has called for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to be replaced with a special prosecutor.

By Dionne Searcey,, Michael Rothfeld, and Ashby Jones,

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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