The New York justice system did the right thing in promptly revealing the credibility problems of the hotel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the head of the International Monetary Fund, of sexually assaulting her when she went to clean his room.
Did Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. rush to judgment in laying charges? That is far from clear. Some, second-guessing, say his office should have done a more thorough investigation before indicting. Perhaps, but it is not, typically, the state's role to do an exhaustive review of an alleged victim's history; it is to determine whether a crime took place, and by whom. The state's role is also to protect against abuses, in this case allegedly by a powerful individual against a relatively powerless one.
There is no perfect justice. A prosecutor who acts from conviction and solid evidence, and then reveals the flaws in that evidence, has admitted to the perplexing condition of being human. The justice system, in New York state as in Canada, shields women to promote the reporting of sexual crimes; victims' names are kept anonymous and their sexual history is mostly irrelevant. This is as it should be. But there should be legal consequences in cases where accusers make allegations that are demonstrably, and beyond a reasonable doubt, false.
It is still unclear, at the moment, what happened in that hotel room. If the woman lied to tax authorities or immigration authorities, that does not mean she lied about sexual assault, or that she can't be a credible witness. But reported changes to her story about what she did after the alleged rape, combined with recorded phone calls one day after the rape in which she reportedly foresaw some financial benefits, and her dealings with one or more men who were sending large amounts of money to bank accounts in her name, have raised questions.
Great damage, meanwhile, has been done to Mr. Strauss-Kahn. The powerful deserve justice, too. It is difficult to know how such damage could reasonably be avoided by a justice system committed to transparency. Hence the importance of Mr. Vance's decision to quickly reveal the problems with his case.
It would be a shame if this case undermines the progress made by sex-assault victims in having police, prosecutors and courts take them seriously. Ultimately, the accusation against Mr. Strauss-Kahn is a cautionary tale about rushing to judgment - even now.
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