Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Justice or no justice

The much publicized court case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn has finally come to an end and now the only question that remains to be answered is whether or not justice has been done.  Dominique was a powerful French politician who was accused of raping a maid in his hotel room earlier this year.  The facts of the matter are that the maid in question was in the room for 7 minutes and gave Dominique (whom she had never met) oral sex in that time.  She then accused him of rape and shortly thereafter he was arrested in the US and charged.  After that several other women came forward to state that they also had been sexually assaulted by Dominique but had previously remained silent.  The details of the reasoning behind dropping the charges from the prosecutors themselves is here.

It seems hard to think that Dominique could possibly be innocent.  A man accused of sexual misconduct from several sources who convinces a woman he does not know to give him oral sex at her workplace in a matter of a couple minutes at most?  Bloody unlikely story, that.  The trick is that the testimony of the maid in question changed dramatically from time to time though, including the details of how the event happened.  The maid also told police and prosecutors of a previous rape in another country and then recanted the story later, which raised grave doubts as to the justice of proceeding with a trial based solely on her testimony.  If she successfully convinced a number of people of a fictitious rape she almost certainly could do so again with the jury.  So here we have a situation where nearly everybody involved thinks the accused is guilty and yet he is being sent home and cleared of all charges.

Was this right?

My answer is yes.  The prosecutors have the obligation to only put people on trial if they believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty and that they have a reasonable chance of a conviction.  Allowing people to be dragged before the courts when the people trying to convict them think they aren't guilty or that a guilty conviction isn't likely would be disastrous - these sorts of accusations are ruinous regardless of their truth.    The legal system has an obligation to not let the entire decision rest in the hands of a jury, especially so when the case has been national news and many or most jurors will already have formed opinions on the matter from media sources.

Witness testimony is always a fickle and unreliable thing.  Eyewitnesses to crimes regularly remember things that are completely false, identify people that were not there and otherwise disagree with indisputable facts.  When the entire case revolves around one person's word against another's we must be exceedingly careful to be sure that the credibility of the people involved has some weight.  Dominique is probably guilty of rape.  However, it is far more critical that we protect the integrity of our legal system and the rights of those who aren't guilty than it is that we prosecute him for a crime he probably, but not certainly, committed.

Justice?  Probably not.  However, it was the right thing to do.


  1. I doubt whether our justice system is able to prosecute wealthy people who are politically connected. The belief that the justice treats everyone equally is important but disappearing.

    Too often charges against the powerful get dropped and the court does not get to weigh the evidence.

    A public inquiry found that Brian Mulroney perjured during his defamation lawsuit against the government of Canada for telling the truth. No perjury charges have been laid against him.

    Michael Bryant drives over someone killing them and then leaves the scene of the accident; all charges are dropped.

    Rahim Jaffer is caught driving impaired and in possession of cocaine. The cocaine charges are dropped so no criminal charges are faced.

    The poor would not get away from charges so easily.

  2. I agree with you, Red, that they should drop the charges if they see no prospect of a conviction, and in this case I think the waters might just be too muddy.

    Unfortunately, I also agree with Dave that charges against rich people are too likely to go away. Furthermore, rape cases still have a tendency to get passed on because the prosecution doesn't want to try a he-said, she-said case.

    DSK almost certainly sexually assaulted that woman, and he's almost certainly sexually assaulted others who didn't come forward. The very public nature of the changing story of his accuser probably made it almost impossible to get a conviction. It still upsets me that, despite the fact that I have no reason to think that police or prosecution did anything wrong, a rich and powerful man gets to walk away from a sexual assault against a vulnerable woman in large part because he is rich and powerful and she is vulnerable.

    Dave's other examples are not so muddy, though. The facts that Brian Mulroney and Rahim Jaffer were not charged, and the fact that Brian Mulroney hasn't been sued for the $2M compensation the Canadian government paid him based on his perjury, are together really terrible. Prosecution and police have not acted appropriately in these cases (nor have political masters). It's bad enough that corruption allows powerful people to escape justice - watching DSK escape without any apparent corruption is very frustrating.

    (With Bryant I think there was absolutely no chance of a conviction and I really think he was legitimately innocent.)

  3. From everything I know about the Myron Baloney case I am convinced he is guilty and got out of it because of being rich and/or powerful. In the case of Michael Bryant I read a bunch about the incident and the people involved and I really do feel like he was innocent. He screwed up and somebody died but that doesn't necessarily mean he should do jail time for it; I think he was in a bad situation and bad things happened but he didn't deserve to be prosecuted. Your summary of the situation Dave is very much not reflective of what actually happened, delve into the reports a little further and you will see.

    It is absolutely true that powerful people get away with things that the poor would not. Just take a look at the outrageous OJ Simpson case if you want proof that a celebrity lawyer that charges millions per month can get an obviously guilty person off. Money and power do sway court cases, there is no disputing that fact. However, we should keep in mind that we read all about the cases when famous people get off on technicalities and we rarely hear about John Smith who ended up getting off even though everyone was sure he did it. There is confirmation bias going on that exaggerates the appearance of bias to some extent.

    Powerful men have throughout history usually been able to treat women awfully and get away with it. Things have gotten much better here over time and I think they will continue to improve but it is clear that we still have a long way to go.