Byline: John Solomon
The maid was discredited. The former IMF chief got off. But was he guilty?ww
The theater-style, fluorescent-lit classroom at Harvard University's law school was virtually silent on a crisp fall afternoon. And why not? It's not every day that law students get the chance to see one of America's most famous defense lawyers assume the role of prosecutor.
There, in the pit of the classroom, Alan Dershowitz was in effect holding court as one of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance's bulldogs, making the prosecution's closing arguments to jurors in the sexual-assault trial against Dominique Strauss-Kahn that never was. Dershowitz was convinced he could secure a guilty conviction, even with the victim's credibility problems. And he was intent on teaching his students a lesson on how a courageous prosecutor could divert a jury from the weaknesses of his star witness to focus on the evidence of a sexual attack and the preposterous defense of an elitist Frenchman.
It was a tall assignment, and a role quite frankly that Dershowitz himself might never have imagined assuming. Dershowitz was known to take the side of high-profile defendants such as televangelist Jim Bakker, football star O.J. Simpson, boxer Mike Tyson, and publishing heiress Patty Hearst. And his appellate work that overturned Claus von Bulow's conviction for murdering his wife was the stuff of legal legend, reserved for books and movies.
So, true to character, Dershowitz had initially sided with Strauss-Kahn's defense when Vance's prosecutors filed documents in court June 30 identifying their concerns with housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo's credibility.
Then, while on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, he took a call from a friend, the Sofitel lawyer Lanny Davis.
Davis was convinced after lobbing hard questions at Diallo during a two-hour interview on July 18 that the housekeeper was mostly telling the truth about what happened in Strauss-Kahn's hotel suite back in May. And after carefully reviewing the evidence from the hotel--especially the time stamps on the hotel security logs and the outcry witness testimony of Diallo's hotel colleagues--he was certain prosecutors were mistaken in some of their claims that Diallo had changed her story. He saw problems with the investigative work and understood the communication gaps that a shy Guinean immigrant might face when confronted by New York's grittiest prosecutors in the pressure cooker of a court case with international consequences.
"Many rape victims have credibility issues. But what does it say to future rape victims if a case with this much physical evidence and credible outcry witnesses gets dropped because the victim lied about how she got in the country and other personal issues? Please take another look," Davis pleaded.
Dershowitz obliged. And he reversed his thinking: the decision on whether Strauss-Kahn was guilty or innocent shouldn't rest with prosecutors, but with a jury.
Soon after, Dershowitz called me up at Newsweek to describe his change of heart. He was willing to go on the record saying so.
And he wanted to do one better. For weeks he had been looking for a fresh subject for his fall legal-ethics class at Harvard. Now he had a theme: how would you, America's future lawyers, handle the DSK prosecution?
Before Dershowitz started with his mock-court lesson, though, he needed to set a few predicates for his students, now acting as the jurors. First, Dershowitz would tell the jury they had every right to doubt the accuser. Second, Dershowitz would seek to get entered into evidence a picture of Strauss-Kahn's naked body, possibly from the police forensic exam after his arrest. If that failed, Dershowitz would have to help jurors picture in their imagination a naked 62-year-old DSK--overweight and slightly hunched, his chest sunken and his skin sagging from the natural …