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International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, right, talks with his lawyer Benjamin Brafman during his arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court in New Yorkm May 16, 2011. (Reuters/Reuters)
International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, right, talks with his lawyer Benjamin Brafman during his arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court in New Yorkm May 16, 2011. (Reuters/Reuters)

'Jury charmer' offers first hint of Strauss-Kahn defence Add to ...

The battle lines in the biggest sexual assault case in recent memory are starting to emerge as a high-powered defence lawyer takes on public prosecutors in the fight over the charges levelled against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

On Tuesday, Mr. Strauss-Kahn spent his first full day in an infamous New York prison, pending further action in his case. A day earlier, a judge had denied bail to the man who heads the International Monetary Fund and was tipped to be the future president of France.

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In allegations that have ignited a furor on both sides of the Atlantic, prosecutors claimed Mr. Strauss-Kahn attempted to rape a hotel maid in his luxury suite in Manhattan's Sofitel hotel on Saturday, grabbing her chest and crotch and forcing her to perform oral sex.

Benjamin Brafman, Mr. Strauss-Kahn's lawyer, denied the accusations in a hearing Monday and offered what may be the first hint of the defence's case. "The forensic evidence, we believe, will not be consistent with a forcible encounter," he said.

Experts say that in sexual assault cases, defence lawyers almost always take one of two approaches, either arguing that the alleged incident didn't involve force, or maintaining that it didn't happen at all.

There may be a third path in Mr. Strauss-Kahn's case. "The defences here are that this was consensual, that she is just mistaken somehow, or that Sarkozy is a trickster," said Paul Shechtman, a criminal defence attorney, referring to conjecture that Nicolas Sarkozy, the current French President, could have somehow set a trap for his political rival.

Prosecutors said at Monday's hearing that the alleged victim, a 32-year-old immigrant from Guinea, "provided a very powerful and detailed account of the violent sexual attack." They also noted that they are awaiting results of forensic tests that may corroborate their version of events.

Some time this week, prosecutors will present their case to a panel of grand jurors, who are likely to issue an indictment, which is a formal statement of criminal charges. On Friday, Mr. Strauss-Kahn, 62, will appear again before a judge, but it's unclear whether his lawyers will make progress in reopening the question of his release from detention.

Prosecutors face a formidable opponent in Mr. Brafman. He is an "excellent trial lawyer," said Daniel Horwitz, a defence attorney and former prosecutor. "He's a great tactician and he handles the media very well."

Mr. Brafman, 62, is a veteran of high-profile cases, especially ones that at first appear difficult to win. He helped successfully defend singer Michael Jackson against charges of child molestation and won an acquittal for hip-hop mogul Sean Combs on weapons charges.

Known for his taste for expensive suits and sense of humour, Mr. Brafman "shines in a courtroom," a profile in The New York Times said in 2004. It described him as a "jury charmer."

Mr. Brafman's immediate challenge will be to craft a deal that gets Mr. Strauss-Kahn out of Rikers Island jail near New York's LaGuardia Airport. Mr. Horwitz said that Mr. Brafman might try to work out an agreement involving a kind of house arrest, where private guards paid for by Mr. Strauss-Kahn keep him under constant surveillance in New York.

Some of the tactics in the case will be determined by the presence of physical evidence, such as traces of DNA, blood, semen, torn clothing, bruising, scratching or other injuries. But experts say it's also possible for a case like this to turn solely on the accounts of the two parties.

"Sometimes it does boil down to 'he said, she said,' " noted Matthew Galluzzo, a defence lawyer and former prosecutor in Manhattan's sex crimes unit.

Mr. Galluzzo added that one of the tricky decisions in this type of case involves what tone the defence attorney will adopt toward the alleged victim and their account of events. "Is the person a liar or is the person just mistaken?" he said. "It's a very important difference."

The stakes are enormous for all the lawyers involved. For Cyrus Vance Jr., who was elected to the post of district attorney in Manhattan in 2009, it's easily the most high-profile case of his young tenure and there will be considerable pressure to deliver a successful outcome.

"If you're an elected official and the whole world is watching, which it is, you would prefer not to lose," Mr. Shechtman said.

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THE LAWYER: BENJAMIN BRAFMAN

'Most people who come to me are in really, really desperate situations'

Few criminal lawyers know their way around the New York legal system better than Benjamin Brafman, famed for helping celebrities in serious trouble and chosen by Dominique Strauss-Kahn to defend him on charges he attempted to rape a New York hotel maid. He was an assistant Manhattan district attorney for four years before entering private practice.

Client on the edge

Mr. Strauss-Kahn was being kept under a suicide watch in jail, the head of the New York corrections union said, which a law-enforcement official confirmed. The legal official said Mr. Strauss-Kahn did not try to harm himself, but was put under watch after undergoing a mental-health evaluation. In a recent interview with Lawline.com, a legal education website, Mr. Brafman said he has become good at keeping his clients "alive and functioning" while their world is collapsing around them. "I think I've talked more people out of committing suicide than any psychiatrist in the world," he said.

Legal style

Mr. Brafman is known for either winning cases at trial or negotiating deals.

Celebrity client list

He represented pop star Michael Jackson in a child molestation case in 2004 before stepping aside, and also New York Giants football star Plaxico Burress for carrying a gun into a nightclub that went off when it slipped down his pants. And he won a not-guilty verdict for hip-hop mogul Sean Combs on illegal weapons and bribery charges in a nightclub brawl and shooting that was witnessed by more than 100 people. "Most people who come to me are in really, really desperate situations," Mr. Brafman, 62, said in a recent interview with a legal education group.

The Burress deal

For Mr. Burress, who faced at least 3½ years in prison, Mr. Brafman negotiated a plea bargain that limited the sentence to two years.

The P.Diddy defence

For Mr. Combs, he won an acquittal, and burnished his own credentials as a trial lawyer. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Sean [Puff Daddy]Combs," he said during the trial, according to a book about Mr. Combs titled Bad Boy. "You can call him Sean. You can call him Mr. Combs. You can call him Puff Daddy. You can him just plain Puffy." But, Mr. Brafman told the jury, you cannot call him guilty.

Partner

He is representing Mr. Strauss-Kahn along with Washington criminal defence lawyer William Taylor. Mr. Brafman said he was brought in to represent Mr. Strauss-Kahn by Mr. Taylor, a partner at white-collar defence specialist Zuckerman Spaeder in Washington. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Brafman both played roles in the indictments of class-action attorneys from the firm once known as Milberg Weiss, who were charged with paying kickbacks to plaintiffs. Mr. Taylor represented the firm, which avoided conviction, while Mr. Brafman represented one of its founders, Mel Weiss, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in prison in June, 2008.

- Andrew Longstreth, Reuters

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