How Will Strauss-Kahn's Case Affect Similar Suits?

Judges in New York have dismissed the sexual assault case against former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Prosecutors filed court papers saying they doubted the credibility of the accuser, a hotel housekeeper. Legal experts ponder how the case will impact others who say they're victims of sexual assault.

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We may never know what really happened between former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and a chambermaid this past May. He says their encounter in a New York City hotel room was consensual. She says it was rape. Experts who follow sexual assault crimes say the blockbuster dismissal of charges highlights the conflicts in such cases all around the country. They say the decisions prosecutors make can change the lives of both defendants and their accusers. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Scott Berkowitz leads one of the country's biggest organizations to support victims of sexual violence. And he says the case against Strauss Kahn went from model prosecution to debacle over the course of only three months. Berkowitz says he worries it makes victims even more reluctant to endure public scrutiny.

SCOTT BERKOWITZ: Right now only about 4 out of 10 victims report their attack to police. So we really encourage people to do that, even in the wake of a case like this.

JOHNSON: There's an important reason for that, he says.

BERKOWITZ: Rapists tend to be serial criminals and the only way to get them to stop attacking more people is to report and to you know go through prosecution.

JOHNSON: He also worries that prosecutors and police might hesitate too, especially in cases involving high profile defendants. But Scott Burns at the National District Attorneys Association sees a different lesson.

SCOTT BURNS: District attorneys, investigators go to work every day trying to do the right thing. And it gives you some insight with respect to how difficult some of these cases can be. It's not like television. It's the real world.

JOHNSON: And in the real world, it's rare to have a lot of solid physical evidence or multiple witnesses to an alleged assault, so the cases become a contest of credibility between an accuser and a defendant. The case rises and falls on the testimony of the victim. Again, Scott Burns.

BURNS: Multiple stories, facts that didn't line up, changing the story, and you know, that's what we as prosecutors do every day. You have to make a judgment call with respect to whether or not you believe a jury would convict this person and find evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and if it's not there, it's not there.

JOHNSON: Many prosecutors and defense lawyers agree that if the government has serious doubts, as Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. says he did, their professional obligation is to walk away from the case. Vance never said he thought Strauss Kahn was innocent, only that the chambermaid's lies to the authorities about big things and small things tainted the prosecution. If we do not believe her beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutors said, we cannot ask a jury to do so.

Lisa Wayne is a Colorado attorney and the new president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

LISA WAYNE: It undermines real victims of sexual assault to go forward on a case where there are clearly issues of lying and bias and a motive to lie.

JOHNSON: Still, the decision to let Strauss-Kahn go free has angered advocates that represent immigrants and rape victims in New York City. Protesters held up signs outside the courthouse reading, quote, "DSK treats women like property," and, quote, "Put the rapist on trial, not the victim."

Wayne, the defense lawyer, has her own warning. Prosecutors are obliged, she says, to do a lot of homework on the front end before they turn a defendant's life upside down.

WAYNE: In my experience of 26 years and having done a lot of these cases, I know that I have more clients wrongfully accused of sexual assault than any other kind of crime.

JOHNSON: All criminal trials are narratives, but not all such tales end with a clear moral. The story of Strauss-Kahn and the chambermaid is like that.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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