As the Manhattan District Attorney’s office weighs whether or not to prosecute the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, his accuser has stepped forward to tell her side of the story. Nafissatou Diallo — a 32-year-old refugee from Guinea who worked as a maid at the Sofitel where Strauss-Kahn stayed and allegedly attacked her — told Newsweek reporters that she wants to correct her portrayal in the media, which has included allegations that she is a prostitute and under the influence of a criminal boyfriend. Much of Diallo’s counter-media blitz may be a legal strategy aimed at ensuring Strauss-Kahn is prosecuted. But in attempting to reclaim her image and identity, Diallo has forced all of us to confront a uniquely American legal concept: that of the ‘perfect’ victim.
In a system where the accused are innocent until proven guilty, their victims tend to take on nearly impossible traits of righteous perfection. And if there are any cracks in that flawless profile, as there allegedly are in Diallo’s case, we start to question the victim’s integrity. “What really struck me about her speaking out was that she wasn’t silenced by the fact that someone said, ‘this is not the perfect woman,’” said Carol Gilligan, a professor of Gender and Law at NYU School of Law. “At first she was put forth as the perfect victim: she was from Africa, she was poor. I think where gender comes in [to a case like this] is this idea that a woman is either on a pedestal, spotless, or if she’s not on the pedestal, then she’s a fallen woman.”
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Indeed, initial accounts of Diallo were a prosecutor’s dream: she was described as pious, dutiful, modest. But after her life was revealed as messy, complicated — full of cultural incongruities and fuzzy details that didn’t seem to fit our preconceived notions of how a victim of sexual assault should be — investigators seemed to want to distance themselves as much as possible and the DA’s office decided to release Strauss-Kahn from house arrest. As the New York Times reported on July 1:
Once, in the hours after she said she was attacked on May 14, she’d been a “very pious, devout Muslim woman, shattered by this experience,” the official said — a seemingly ideal witness.
Little by little, her credibility as a witness crumbled — she had lied about her immigration, about being gang raped in Guinea, about her experiences in her homeland and about her finances, according to two law enforcement officials.
“The DA probably doesn’t have any less reason to think that he committed the attack,” says Holly Maguigan, a criminal law professor at NYU Law School. “What they have now is a trial strategy problem. This incident could have happened just as they believed it did in the beginning, but now she’s impeachable.”
By all accounts, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers have been pushing on the prosecutors not to bring the case to trial, bringing up several concerns about Diallo’s credibility — including allegations that she lied on her application for political asylum — and that has made prosecutors nervous about proceeding and have caused delays in going to trial. The most troubling issue for prosecutors has been an account of a phone conversation with a friend in prison, in which she is thought to have said: “Don’t worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I’m doing.” But Newsweek reports that a translator may have incorrectly paraphrased the conversation, as it was conducted in a particularly obscure dialect of Fulani, Diallo’s native language.
Many of the elements of the case turn out to be favorable for her, according to Newsweek’s reporting: hospital records of her injuries corroborate Diallo’s account of the attack. And DNA evidence not only confirms that a sexual encounter took place, but also of the nature that Diallo recounted: she describes being forced to perform oral sex on Strauss-Kahn and then spitting as she ran out of the room. The forensic team sent to the room found samples containing both Strauss-Kahn’s semen and her saliva.
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But prosecution has slowed its investigation of the case and some believe that they may not bring it to trial at all. Still, in speaking out, Diallo and her lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, may be trying to let the prosecutors know they won’t give up easily. “The defense lawyers have been pushing on prosecutors and the victim’s lawyer is pushing back as if to say ‘we want you to know that you will be in trouble if you don’t prosecute too,’” said Laurie Levenson, an expert on sexual assault cases, former prosecutor and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “As a legal strategy it looks a little desperate.”
In some way, however, Diallo has made herself invulnerable. It seems unlikely that she had in mind an activist mission, but the simple act of defending herself publicly, putting a face and name to a previously anonymous account — aside from its legal connotations — could perhaps inspire others to rethink the rationale of staying silent and unknown.
“In sex crime law the identity of an alleged victim is always scrupulously suppressed,” says Amy Adler, a professor of law and gender at NYU Law School. “But at what point does concern for the privacy of the victim of an alleged sex crime become a way of perpetuating the stigma that victims experience? Could the alleged victim’s ‘coming out of the closet’ be seen as a way to combat that stigma?”
If nothing else, her account makes us face our own discomfort over the untidy details of criminal complainants. We oscillate between equally uninformed perceptions of her as a liar, extortionist and prostitute, or dutiful, naïve imam’s daughter. Diallo, on the other hand, has seen enough and says she simply wants her voice to be heard . “Because of him they call me a prostitute,” she told the reporters in Newsweek. “I want him to go to jail. I want him to know there are some places you cannot use your power, you cannot use your money.”