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Strauss-Kahn and the End of the Presumption of Innocence: View

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Legal System
Photograph: Steven Puetzer/Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View

July 1 (Bloomberg) -- A Manhattan judge’s decision to release Dominique Strauss-Kahn from house arrest tells us nothing about his guilt or innocence in the affair that landed him in court in the first place. For the moment, at least, prosecutors appear determined to press forward with the very serious charges of attempted rape and sexual assault.

Yet they have also acknowledged embarrassing problems regarding the credibility of the hotel housekeeper who in May accused the International Monetary Fund managing director of a brutal sexual attack.

Although we cannot know how the case will be resolved, there may be a few lessons to draw from the stunning -- if inconclusive -- turn in the case. At the very least, we should consider whether, as a society, we have lost touch with a fundamental concept of our judicial system: the presumption of innocence.

High-profile cases take on a life of their own as both prosecution and defense build narratives to suit their purposes. This duel is appropriate when presented to a judge and jury. It can be nefarious when it reverberates in the media echo chamber outside the courtroom. Reputations and lives are destroyed long before facts are known.

In the Strauss-Kahn case, a dominant narrative was established immediately: A powerful man had allegedly assaulted a helpless housekeeper, a refugee from violence and oppression in her native Guinea. The story of a Goliath getting his comeuppance acquired visual force when a haggard and disheveled Strauss-Kahn was paraded before cameras during the uniquely American shaming ritual known as the “perp walk.” It was fortified by accounts from other women, who described a history of deregulated sexual appetites.

Now, another narrative is emerging to replace the first, with the disclosure by the prosecution of discrepancies in the victim’s statements, including misrepresentations about her background, and of her connection to a jailed man with whom she allegedly discussed how she might benefit from the case.

The modern mind abhors uncertainty. These revelations create a narrative vacuum into which the baying know-it-alls will undoubtedly rush, if only to fill airtime. It will be easy to substitute the victim for the accused, but what may get lost in that U-turn is a fundamental fact: We do not yet know what occurred in that hotel room. It is possible to be both a dishonest immigrant and a victim of sexual assault. It is possible to be both a powerful politician and a victim of false charges.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn deserves the presumption of innocence. So, too, does his accuser.

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