I’ve been to a lot of dinner parties lately where the question du jour is whether Nafissatou Diallo should have been “given her day in court” so she could “fully air” her charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn; and, while we’re on the topic, whether Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. compromised his political career with the motion to dismiss. It’s slow around Labor Day, so I understand the hunger to have that case go on forever; it would have been a mega-spectacle, and I, too, would have loved seeing the blood vessels in Nancy Grace’s temples balloon and throb.
Carnival possibilities notwithstanding, however, it’s important to remember that criminal cases fall apart all the time. Through one prism, this was just one of them—such is life. At the same time, as Katha Pollitt noted recently in a post on The Nation’s website, the onus on a victim asserting rape is very, very great. It seems there’s always “something” in her past that can and will be used against her. In addition, the way l’Affaire DSK played with hot-button political figurations—money, race, ethnicity, immigration—made its end especially excruciating. Like a piñata that has spewed its contents after much bashing, a ghostly ruin of pluralized images were left to us: poor hotel workers, haughty Frenchmen, lying black women, callous prosecutors, Muslim mothers, high-priced lawyers, insidious unnamed sources, guys who smile like cats that swallowed the canary and traumatized rape victims everywhere.
It’s important to understand why this case fell apart, to distinguish some of its particular features from the more general challenges in prosecuting rape. First, rape cases are notoriously difficult to prove, because the crime is so often one-on-one, or “he said/she said.” In the past, the mere lack of other witnesses was considered legal reason for letting rape go unprosecuted. This is no longer true—and despite confusing media assertions to the contrary, Diallo’s case was not dismissed on those grounds.
Second, despite our best aphorisms that “even” prostitutes and pathological liars can be raped, it remains true that the credibility of rape victims is too frequently doubted for specious reasons having to do with their sexual history. Media accounts suggested that Diallo’s suit was dismissed because of her “questionable past,” but that wasn’t what weakened the case most. It was that she lied to prosecutors again and again and again. The fact that she falsely claimed* to have been gang-raped in Guinea probably wasn’t enough to doom the case—she might still have presented herself quite sympathetically as a desperate refugee fleeing a war zone—but there were other things undermining her credibility. Diallo repeatedly confused or misrepresented crucial sequences of events to the grand jury, to police and to prosecutors. Not only did the police investigation turn up a jumble of discrepancies in her story; her own attorney permitted her, even advised her, to talk and talk and talk to all manner of tabloid media hounds. That rather unusual—I would say reckless—decision captured yet more discrepancies for the record and diminished her reliability further.