Kenneth Thompson, the lawyer for Guinean immigrant Nafissatou Diallo, filed a civil suit demanding unspecified compensation Monday in New York state court in the Bronx, a poor, mostly black and Latino district of the Big Apple.
The choice of venue was no accident.
Not only does Diallo live in the Bronx, but a jury would be picked from a pool of residents having far more in common with the plaintiff than Strauss-Kahn, who is wealthy, powerful and white.
The courthouse is a vast building on a hill up from the famed Yankee Stadium. Above its neo-classical columns and granite steps is inscribed:
“The administration of justice presents the noblest field for the exercise of human capacity.”
Locals say justice might well swing in favor of Diallo, a single mother who was cleaning Strauss-Kahn’s $3,000-a-night room hotel room May 14 when the then-head of the International Monetary Fund allegedly forced her to give him oral sex.
“Her community supports her because she’s black and a woman – whether she’s right or not. A lot of people here are from Africa,” Vincent Osborne an unemployed man aged 45, said at an open-air market near the courthouse.
Strauss-Kahn “saw her as a weak, vulnerable person, that’s what made him do that. I thought people like that were so righteous they wouldn’t do that. He’s like a king,” said Osborne, who is black.
Cynthia Alonse, from Puerto Rico, also reflected support for a fellow female immigrant.
“I think there’ll be some sympathy. We’re human, we’re not robots,” Alonse, 41, said as she walked her dog. “Just because he’s rich, if he did do it, then he had no right. That doesn’t give you the right to do that. We’re not slaves.”
The civil suit was filed just as prosecutors appeared close to dropping criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn.
Their once seemingly strong case has crumbled in the wake of revelations that Diallo lied about being raped in Guinea when she applied for asylum to enter the United States.
Prosecutors now fear that Diallo may have made herself too vulnerable to being picked apart under cross-examination for their case to succeed in criminal court.
Usually a civil suit is not filed until the fate of the criminal prosecution is clear. But Thompson may have already decided that prosecutors will not take their case to trial and that the time is ripe for what could be a lucrative civil action.
Lawyers for Strauss-Kahn say Diallo fabricated the assault story so that she could pursue his wealth in a civil trial.
But legal experts say Diallo risks little in seeking her day in court.
Unlike in criminal cases, where juries must be convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the lawyers in civil suits need only have a “preponderance of evidence” to prove their claim.
Thompson may even be using the suit to pressure Strauss-Kahn into an out-of-court settlement, rather than go to a trial which in any case would likely take years to start.
“Thompson is maybe thinking, OK, if the criminal matter is going to be over, he’s maybe willing to settle this civil matter,” said Brenda Smith, professor at American University Washington College of Law.
“That’s also another reason to file it. Maybe there is not a real intention of going to a trial.”
If the civil suit ever did go before a jury, the result would be unpredictable for both sides, regardless of the Bronx’s pro-plaintiff reputation, experts say.
Even if local sympathies initially lie with Diallo, residents said they would be no push-over as jurors.
Bob Andrews, a military veteran, 56, said “a lot of people are going to decide in her favor because she’s quote-unquote a hometown girl.”
But he said that if he were picked to serve on a jury, he would want “to hear everything — has he been in trouble before, has she?”
Alonse, who is studying to be a court stenographer, said she was aware of the need to keep an open mind when listening to highly persuasive lawyers.
“You have to be smart and weigh both sides,” she said.