THE RAPE case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund president and a leading French politician, was the stuff of opera - a mystery and clash of cultures that stirred powerful feelings in various corners of the world. But it was also, at bottom, a criminal prosecution dependent on one witness whose credibility was tarnished by past lies. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. acted properly and professionally in dismissing the charges this week.
The turbulence surrounding the case - about trans-Atlantic differences in sexual morality, disparities in wealth and power, and the difficulty in proving rape - won’t be settled by Vance’s decision. The best hope is that the outcome of the legal case will prompt people on all sides to question their assumptions and try to see the matter through other people’s eyes.
Those in France who deemed the criminal charges to be an expression of American Puritanism must consider the consequences to society of dismissing claims of forcible rape out of hand, as if the law shouldn’t set any boundaries for sexual consent.
Those who were repulsed by the notion of a rich, powerful man having an encounter with a poor immigrant woman must consider the consequences of applying the force of law based on morality rather than testimony.
Those who rage at the idea that a witness’s account would be dismissed because of inconsistencies and past lies must consider whether there is any other basis for assessing truthfulness.
In many rape cases, there are understandable limits to what the physical evidence can prove; no one disputes that a sexual encounter occurred between Strauss-Kahn and his accuser. In determining whether the alleged victim’s claims are more credible than the defendant’s, a jury naturally would have been moved by the fact that she had once drawn a vivid picture of having been raped by soldiers in her native Guinea, only to later admit to fabricating the story.
Questioning her veracity in the wake of such a revelation is far different from the old smear tactic of discrediting a rape victim by probing her sexual past. Past lies raise legitimate questions about whether she’s telling the truth this time. Vance had no choice but to abandon the case.