Unusual legal skirmishes mark Strauss-Kahn case

With the government's case against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn foundering, public criticism of the prosecutor by the alleged victim's lawyer underscore problems if a trial takes place, legal experts say.

Prosecutors and victims, who usually do not have their own lawyers, often work hand-in-hand because in most cases “the interests of the victims and the prosecutor are closely aligned,” said Ian Weinstein, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York.

But after Manhattan prosecutor Cyrus Vance revealed serious credibility issues with the accuser, a Guinean-born hotel maid, her lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, unleashed a furious assault.

Thompson said he feared the district attorney’s office was “laying the foundation to dismiss this case.”

“Our concern is that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance is too afraid to try this case. We believe that he’s afraid that he’s going to lose this high-profile case,” Thompson said on July 1 at an impromptu news conference.

On Wednesday, Thompson wrote Vance asking that his office appoint a special prosecutor, citing both a “potential conflict of interest” and the fact that one prosecutor had “screamed at and disrespected the victim.”

Thompson said the conflict arose because the head of the prosecutor’s trial division is married to one of Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers involved in the case, a fact he said he first learned about in a New York Times article last month.

“We should have been told about this matter by members of your office and not by members of the press,” Thompson wrote.

Vance’s spokesperson, Erin Duggan, called the recusal request “wholly without merit.”

Weinstein said it is typical for victims to regard the prosecutor as his or her lawyer, even though that is technically not the case.

“The American prosecutor represents the state and the public’s interest in justice,” said Weinstein. “The victim is only a private person in the criminal prosecution who may have a particular interest and some special access.”

The hostility between Thompson and Vance, said Weinstein, “is not unprecedented, but it is unusual, and is a strong signal that the criminal case is very troubled and problematic.”

Normally, the usually close relationship between victim and prosecutor means the two would talk regularly during the run-up to a trial, notes New York University law professor Holly Maguigan.

“Often the victim’s lawyer gathers facts and arguments that are useful to the prosecutor, and often the prosecutor requests the victim’s opinion on possible steps to take,” she said.

But that is clearly not the case here — and not something that is necessarily helpful to either the prosecution or the alleged victim, says lawyer Vincent Sanzone, who argues cases in New York.

“This guy is abrasive, causing a rift between the victim and the prosecutor,” he said, referring to Thompson. “He should be low key. It is very harmful for the rest of the case.”

In addition, the sexual assault charges against Strauss-Kahn could also lead to a civil suit as well, which could result in a potentially large monetary settlement.

But the victim’s credibility is also crucial in a civil trial.

“In this case, it seems to me that the DA may want to blame the victim for the collapse of the case in order to protect  his public standing,” said Weinstein, referring to Vance.

“The victim, on the other hand, will want to blame the DA to protect herown reputation and by extension, the civil suit,” he added.

The public spat between Thompson and Vance is, however, understandable, according to Stephen Dreyfuss, a New York attorney and former assistant prosecutor.

“Cyrus Vance divulged negative information about the victim, something he was obligated to do,” he said. “Her lawyer thought she had been criticized, and he reacted. That’s what lawyers do.”

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