Strauss-Kahn accuser may sue in friendly Bronx

NEW YORK Thu Aug 4, 2011 6:13pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - For almost three months, the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn has centered around the upscale Sofitel hotel where a maid claimed the former International Monetary Fund chief attacked her.

With Strauss-Kahn's accuser poised to bring a civil suit against him, the focus could shift from the luxury suites of Manhattan to the gritty streets of the Bronx, where juries are believed to be more likely to sympathize with the plight of a 32-year-old immigrant than a well-off politician.

Accuser Nafissatou Diallo's lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, has said she intends to file a civil suit soon.

While she could sue Strauss-Kahn in Manhattan, where he is temporarily living in a townhouse, legal experts agree that the Bronx will be the more likely venue.

"I think that Bronx jurors tend to demonstrate a distrust of outsiders, the overprivileged and the system in general," said Brian Waller, a defense attorney who worked in the Bronx as an assistant district attorney.

Bronx juries' reputation for generosity toward plaintiffs is so ingrained that it has been dubbed the "Bronx effect."

"The Bronx civil jury is the greatest tool of wealth redistribution since the Red Army," said Ron Kuby, a well-known New York defense lawyer. "As a purported socialist, DSK should applaud the venue."

The Bronx reputation may be overstated. A study in published in the 2002 Texas Law Review found no evidence Bronx juries deliver bigger awards than other New York counties.

Still, the notion persists that the Bronx gives otherwise powerless plaintiffs their best hope for a big payout.

That could be appealing to Diallo, whose credibility was questioned last month after prosecutors claimed she lied on her asylum application and her tax returns, and gave inconsistent accounts of her actions after the May 14 encounter at the Sofitel.

After these revelations, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance freed Strauss-Kahn from house arrest and said his office would continue its investigation.

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If Vance winds up dropping the charges, as many expect him to, a Bronx jury could render a verdict to "correct" what they perceive as a social injustice, said Waller.

"If they do decide to dismiss the case, I think many Bronx residents ... are going to feel once again that the DA, the government, the establishment sided with the wealthy, privileged individual over the poor, single immigrant in the Bronx," Waller said.

Lawyers consider racial and socioeconomic factors when deciding where to file a civil suit.

"The Bronx is overwhelmingly poor, black, and Latino," said Kuby.

A famous example is the case of Bernhard Goetz, a white man dubbed the "subway vigilante" after he shot four black teenagers he said were attempting to rob him one night in 1984. More than 10 years after a Manhattan jury acquitted Goetz of attempted murder, a Bronx jury ordered him to pay $43 million to one of the men paralyzed in the shooting.

Frederick Potack, a past president of the Bronx Bar Association, predicted it was unlikely that Diallo's civil case will ever reach a jury.

"They will give her a sum of money she's never seen before, and she'll go away quietly in the dark," he said.

(Additional reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Jesse Wegman and Doina Chiacu)

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