Will tables turn on Strauss-Kahn's accuser?
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Could Dominique Strauss-Kahn's accuser become the accused? That prospect came to light suddenly last week after prosecutors raised serious doubts about the credibility of the hotel maid who told police and prosecutors she was sexually assaulted by Strauss-Kahn when she went to clean his room.
The woman's own statements -- both in connection to Strauss-Kahn and about her past as a Guinean immigrant who sought and received asylum here -- have exposed her to criminal prosecution and possibly to deportation proceedings, but legal experts says it's unclear whether authorities will have the appetite to pursue them.
"It would be a politically unpopular thing to do," said Kevin Johnson, a professor at University of California Davis School of Law, regarding speculation that the woman could be deported. "We'd be seen as railroading this woman and once again she's a victim. I don't see any rush to do it or even begin."
In a letter last Thursday to Strauss-Kahn's lawyers, prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney's office detailed numerous false statements the 32-year-old woman has allegedly made to government officials. Among other things, prosecutors said, she lied on her asylum application and her tax returns, and told contradictory stories to the prosecutors and grand jury about what happened after the alleged assault.
The disclosures appeared to severely weaken the case against Strauss-Kahn, the former chief of the International Monetary Fund, who was once considered a leading contender to become the Socialist candidate in France's 2012 presidential election.
GRAND JURY TESTIMONY
Strauss-Kahn's accuser could be criminally liable for giving the grand jury a false account of her actions on May 14, when the alleged sexual assault occurred in a luxury suite at the Sofitel hotel in midtown Manhattan.
According to the prosecutors' letter, the woman testified to the grand jury investigating the charges against Strauss-Kahn that after the incident, she fled to the hallway outside the 28th-floor suite, waited for Strauss-Kahn to enter an elevator, and then told her supervisor about the assault. But prosecutors said that she later admitted the account was false, and that after the incident she proceeded to clean a nearby room before returning to Strauss-Kahn's room and cleaning it further. Only then, she said, did she report the incident to her supervisor.
In New York, lying to a grand jury is a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison. But it's not an easy crime to prosecute, said Matthew Galluzzo, a former prosecutor in the sex-crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office.
Prosecutors would have to show that any lie was critical to the underlying case, Galluzzo said, and the woman's statement about her whereabouts after the alleged incident may not meet that threshold.
"Is that really material to the action? That's the question," said Galluzzo. "It doesn't really go to whether she was raped. She could say 'I was confused by the question.'"
The woman may have a more serious problem, however, with immigration officials. In their letter last week, prosecutors said that she told them her 2004 application for asylum was filled with false information about her experiences in Guinea.
For example, in the application she stated that she and her husband were beaten by police and soldiers of the country's ruling party, which they opposed. She also stated that after her husband was arrested and tortured to death in prison, she fled the country in fear for her life.
But in interviews with prosecutors, she allegedly said that a man gave her a cassette recording which coached her on what to say on the application.
The false statements on her asylum application could make her vulnerable to removal proceedings in administrative court, according to immigration law experts.
Lenni Benson, a professor at New York Law School, said to succeed in deporting her, the government would have to show that the asylum application contained false statements and that they were material to her reasons for seeking asylum. She added that a deportation could have a deterrent effect on other immigrants.
"Many immigrant women do suffer from rape and do fear for their daughters," said Benson. "It's unfortunate that such a high-profile case could call into question their complaints."
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
In their letter, prosecutors detailed several other alleged lies that the woman told them, including that she was gang-raped in Guinea.
But lying to prosecutors is not a crime, said Galluzzo, with the exception of falsely reporting a crime, and prosecutors have not yet made that allegation here. Kenneth Thompson, a lawyer for the woman, said at a press conference last Friday that her story about the alleged incident had not changed.
"The victim from day one described a violent sexual assault. ... She has never once changed a single thing about that account," he said. "The victim here may have made some mistakes, but that doesn't mean she's not a rape victim."
The district attorney's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In the end, the maid's fate could depend on the outcome of the prosecutors' case against Strauss-Kahn. Under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, sexual-assault victims who assist law enforcement in an investigation or prosecution may be eligible for a special visa if they meet certain criteria.
If the case against Strauss-Kahn is dropped, however, she likely won't get any help from prosecutors obtaining such a visa, said James Eyster, a professor at Ave Maria School of Law.
"My guess is that they will distance themselves from her as much as possible," he said.
So far, prosecutors have resisted dropping charges against Strauss-Kahn. After a meeting Wednesday between prosecutors and defense lawyers, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney said, "The investigative process is continuing, and no decisions have been made."
(Reporting by Andrew Longstreth; Editing by Jesse Wegman)