NEW YORK – Dominique Strauss-Kahn became a free man Tuesday when a judge ended the sexual assault case against him at the request of prosecutors, who said the hotel maid who accused the former International Monetary Fund chief couldn't be trusted.
Though evidence showed Strauss-Kahn had a sexual encounter with Nafissatou Diallo in his hotel suite more than three months ago, prosecutors said the accuser was not credible because of lies she has told, including an earlier false rape claim.
State Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus said he would dismiss the case, but there was one more legal twist to get through: He first wanted an appeals court to hear a request from Diallo's attorneys to keep the case alive by appointing a special prosecutor. The criminal case ended about two hours later, when the higher court agreed with Obus that there was no legal basis for removing the district attorney from the case.
The case drew global attention and left both the accuser and the accused — a one-time contender for the French presidency — with tattered reputations.
Strauss-Kahn arrived at court in a six-car motorcade and was greeted by protesters wielding signs carrying such messages as "DSK treats women like property" and "Put the rapist on trial — not the victim." The shouting could be heard inside the courtroom.
He appeared resolute inside. He smiled and shook hands with his biographer as his wife, journalist Anne Sinclair, sat nearby.
The couple left court without speaking to reporters, but Strauss-Kahn later issued a statement describing the case as "a nightmare for me and my family."
"I want to thank all the friends in France and in the United States who have believed in my innocence, and to the thousands of people who sent us their support personally and in writing. I am most deeply grateful to my wife and family who have gone through this ordeal with me," he said.
"We will have nothing further to say about this matter and we look forward to returning to our home and resuming something of a more normal life."
Later, Strauss-Kahn appeared outside the posh Tribeca town house where he was held under house arrest until July — when prosecutors first publicly admitted they had doubts about the maid's credibility. He summed up the statement in French and was mobbed by reporters.
Diallo, from the West African nation of Guinea, claimed that the 62-year-old diplomat chased her down, grabbed her crotch and forced her to perform oral sex when she arrived to clean his luxury suite May 14.
He was charged with a criminal sex act, attempted rape and sexual abuse, and was jailed for nearly a week before being released on $1 million bail under pricey house arrest.
DNA evidence showed Strauss-Kahn's semen on Diallo's work clothes, and prosecutors on Monday revealed additional details that led them to believe a sexual encounter occurred. But Strauss-Kahn's attorneys contended it wasn't forced.
"At the very first appearance ... I said in open court that this was not a forcible encounter," Strauss-Kahn's attorney Benjamin Brafman said outside court. "You can engage in inappropriate behavior, perhaps, but that is much different than a crime. And this case was treated as a crime — when it was not."
When prosecutors brought charges, they said their evidence was strong and Diallo was credible. But in July they said she had told them a series of troubling falsehoods, including a phony account of having been gang-raped in her native Guinea. She told interviewers she was raped in her homeland under other circumstances and embellished the account to enhance her 2003 application for political asylum.
Prosecutors continued investigating and said Monday they uncovered further information that led them to believe they couldn't ask a jury to believe her story. Like many sexual assault cases, in which the accused and the accuser are often the only eyewitnesses, the Strauss-Kahn case hinged heavily on the maid's believability.
"Our inability to believe the complainant beyond a reasonable doubt means, in good faith, that we could not ask a jury to do that," assistant district attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said in formally recommending the case be dismissed.
She added that prosecutors' decision to drop the case "does not mean that we, in any way, condone the defendant's behavior."
The case was the biggest for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance in his 18 months in office. He said in a statement that his job is to seek justice — not convictions at any cost.
"We should not blindly advocate for one side, or be afraid to assess honestly whether we can meet our burden of proof. Because when prosecutors fail to follow the facts where they lead, justice becomes secondary to victory," he said.
"In dismissing the case today, we believe — and I believe — this is the right decision."
Vance had scheduled a news conference to discuss the dismissal, but as it began the courts building started shaking from the earthquake in Virginia that was felt along much of the East Coast. Reporters and others rushed out of the building and the event was canceled.
The quake also prevented Strauss-Kahn from getting his passport back from New York authorities, which would allow him to return to France. He could retrieve the passport as early as Wednesday.
Diallo, 33, continues to insist that Strauss-Kahn attacked her; her attorneys vainly argued that Vance was biased. She has maintained that she feared what would happen if she had told the truth about her asylum application earlier.
Diallo has sued Strauss-Kahn and came forward in a series of interviews with media after it became clear prosecutors were losing faith in her credibility. The Associated Press does not usually name people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they come forward publicly, as she has done.
Diallo did not attend the hearing in which Obus decided to dismiss the case. Her attorney Kenneth Thompson said outside court that she had been abandoned.
"No man, no matter how much power, money and influence he has, has a right to sexually assault a woman," Thompson said. "We are disappointed that District Attorney Vance apparently does not believe in equal justice under the law and has denied an innocent woman a day in court."
Thompson's partner addressed members of the French media in Paris, expressing similar concern and frustration. Diallo's lawyers had no other plans to appeal.
In France, Strauss-Kahn's fellow Socialists lauded the end of the criminal case. Party chief Martine Aubry called it "an immense relief."
"We were all waiting for this ... for him to finally be able to get out of this nightmare," she said on France-Info radio.
On the streets of Guinea's capital, Conakry, and on its airwaves and on the editorial pages of its major newspapers, opinions were mixed. A small and unscientific sample indicated that women tended to back Diallo, while men questioned her version of events.
"Since the beginning of time, the powerful have always won. Nafissatou Diallo didn't stand a chance against DSK," said Pepe Bimou, a computer programmer. "The only possible outcome was that she would lose."
Diallo's attorneys said they would aggressively litigate the civil case — though they expect it would take two years to go to court.
Meanwhile, another sex assault case in France against Strauss-Kahn continues. Novelist Tristane Banon, who says Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her in 2002, has filed a new criminal complaint in France. Strauss-Kahn's lawyers have called her account "imaginary."
Associated Press reporter Boubacar Diallo in Conakry, Guinea, Verena Dobnik and Associated Press Television News Reporter Bonny Ghosh in New York contributed to this report.