Published June 06, 2011
NEW YORK – Dominique Strauss-Kahn formally asserted his innocence Monday to charges he tried to rape a hotel maid, but the drama unfolded outside the Manhattan courtroom as protesters jeered the former International Monetary Fund leader and lawyers for the housekeeper said she was eager to testify despite a "smear campaign" against her.
Strauss-Kahn's attorneys offered a rival account of the May 14 encounter at his $3,000-a-night Manhattan hotel suite, hinting again that the French diplomat might argue the encounter was consensual.
By the end of the case, "it will be clear that there was no element of forcible compulsion in this case whatsoever," defense lawyer Ben Brafman said. "Any suggestion to the contrary is simply not credible."
Strauss-Kahn, looking resolute, declared "not guilty" in a strong voice in a routine legal proceeding that lasted less than 10 minutes as wife, journalist Anne Sinclair, watched. He said nothing else, save for "yes" when acknowledging he received a standard warning that he could be tried in absentia if he failed to appear.
It was the French diplomat's first court appearance since he was released on $6 million in cash bail and bond last month. He has been under house arrest that includes 24-hour monitors and armed guards in a deluxe town house in the trendy TriBeCa neighborhood.
As Strauss-Kahn left the courthouse, a throng of angry hotel workers, many in their uniforms, chanted "shame on you" as he left in a black sport utility vehicle.
The protesters wanted to send the message that "New York is the wrong place to mess with a hotel worker," said Aissata Bocum, a Ramada Inn housekeeper. The 50 or so workers, mostly maids, were bused in by their union.
After Strauss-Kahn was driven away, his lawyers duked it out with attorneys for the accuser, a 32-year-old West African immigrant. In sequential statements before an international horde of reporters, each side's lawyers argued their client's version of events would prevail.
Brafman said the attorneys would not try the case publicly, but referred to Strauss-Kahn's not-guilty plea as "a very eloquent, powerful statement that he made that he denies the charges."
The 62-year-old Strauss-Kahn was scheduled to check out of the Sofitel hotel, near Times Square, the day of the encounter. The maid told police he chased her down a hallway in his Sofitel hotel suite May 14, tried to pull down her pantyhose and forced her to perform oral sex.
The maid's attorney, Kenneth Thompson, said his client would testify at trial and tell the truth despite the "smear campaign that is being committed against her."
He was referring to mostly French media reports alleging a conspiracy against Strauss-Kahn and suggesting her story was invented. The defense has also alluded to having damning information against the maid but has not released it.
"The victim wants you to know that all of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's power, money and influence throughout the world will not keep the truth about what he did to her in that hotel room from coming out," Thompson said. "She is standing up for women around the world, sexually assaulted, who are too afraid to come forward."
The Associated Press generally does not identify accusers in sex crime cases unless they agree to it. Thompson said the maid, a widow who has a teenage daughter, has not worked since the encounter because she is traumatized.
The Manhattan district attorney's office did not comment outside court.
The case has been intensely followed around the world, spawning news reports even about food deliveries to the home where Strauss-Kahn is staying. His arrest rocked France, where he had been considered a potential contender in next year's presidential elections, and shook up the IMF. He resigned amid the scandal and proclaimed his innocence in a letter to staff. The powerful lending organization has yet to name his replacement.
In a sign of the attention the case has received, novelist Jay McInerney was among the roughly 100 writers and journalists who packed the courtroom; a score or so of others didn't make it in, and many others waited with news cameras outside the courthouse. McInerney wrote a piece about the Strauss-Kahn case last month for the London-based newspaper The Independent.
News of the hearing was the top story on French front pages and broadcasts Monday. "DSK: D-Day" headlined French newspaper Le Figaro, suggesting the routine hearing was a pivotal moment in the case. It was also a reference to Monday's 67th anniversary of the U.S.- and British-led invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, known as D-Day, which helped free France from the Nazi grip in World War II.
French media published primers about the U.S. legal system, which differs in many aspects from France's — including the American jury trial or the condition of "beyond a reasonable doubt" for any conviction in the case.
Monday's proceeding was Strauss-Kahn's arraignment before his trial judge on charges of attempted rape, sex abuse, a criminal sex act, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching. The most serious charge carries a maximum term of five to 25 years in prison.
In U.S. courts, the arraignment is a standard proceeding at which the defendant is formally advised of the charges and is given the chance to enter a plea. From there, attorneys for both sides plot their cases and share some information until trial, which could be months, even a year, away.
On Monday, the attorneys also briefly discussed the handing over of potential evidence in the case. Defense attorneys filed papers making mostly standard demands for police reports, forensic tests, and any statements made by the prosecution to any prospective witness in the case. They also asked for details on any promises made by prosecutors to prospective players in the case, and whether any of them have initiated civil lawsuits. Often, in U.S. courts, an accuser in a criminal case will sue a suspect in civil court for monetary damage.
The woman's attorneys did not immediately say whether a lawsuit was planned.
After Strauss-Kahn's arrest, authorities seized several cell phones, his iPad and his Apple computer, and defense attorneys told prosecutors in a letter released Monday that they were concerned about "sensitive and confidential" material on the gadgets, plus phone messages, left since his arrest, that they said prosecutors should not hear.
Strauss-Kahn's next court date was set for July 18.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Warren Levinson in New York and Angela Charlton in Paris.