Defying public expectations, a New York jury acquits a high-profile defendant on rape charges — former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn can only have smiled when he opened local newspapers on Friday.
The trial of two New York Police Department officers accused of raping a helpless, drunken woman in her apartment 30 months ago ended on Thursday with the shock verdict of not guilty on all but the most minor charges.
Until Strauss-Kahn, who is alleged to have tried to rape a hotel maid on May 14, the so-called “rapes cop” trial was the most sensational legal show in the Big Apple.
There are big differences between the two cases, but the acquittal caused a stir among lawyers, journalists and commentators debating the former IMF chief’s own chances of escaping prison.
The fact that the jury favored the seemingly suspicious policemen over a tearful woman showed, if nothing else, how hard it is to convince jurors to the standard of what the law calls “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Brenda Smith, a professor at American University Washington College of Law and an expert on sexual violence, said the decision would be “heartening” for Strauss-Kahn’s camp.
“It really does say that these juries take their job very seriously. In places like New York, these are sophisticated jurors. These are not people who are just going to buy any old story. Jurors in New York may even be a little jaded or cynical,” Smith said.
That could indeed be good news in a trial where public opinion is already sharply against Strauss-Kahn.
The globe-trotting former VIP, married to a multi-millionaire and touted as next president of France, is accused of brutally forcing a poor immigrant maid into oral sex before calmly meeting his daughter for lunch and boarding a plane in hopes of leaving for Paris.
Leaks from investigators suggest strong backing for the maid’s story, including witnesses, DNA evidence of sperm and results from medical exams.
However, as the “rape cops” episode shows, a strong case may come to nothing when a jury is less than 100 percent satisfied.
Toni Messina, a New York defense attorney, said lawyers for the two policemen “did their job well in talking to the jurors and addressing the idea of the presumption of innocence — that it’s up to [the prosecutors] to prove this case beyond reasonable doubt.”
“They convinced the jury to follow the standard so well that I hand it to them,” Messina said.
That presumption of innocence means defense lawyers have no burden of proof. And if they sow doubt in the mind of even a single juror, they may be able to prevent a guilty verdict.
Undisputed in the “rape cops” case was that the officers took the drunken woman home, then let themselves back into her apartment several times during the night. One of them even cuddled her.
Her version was that they went much further: One officer raped her, while the other kept lookout, she said.
However, there was no DNA evidence proving sexual contact and the woman admitted she was so drunk that she could not remember the night clearly. Jurors — even those who felt sorry for her — said they simply could not convict the two men according to the watertight standards demanded.