Joanna Weiss

About-face on the perp walk

But public opinion renders judgment, even when legal system cannot

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / August 27, 2011

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SO I was wrong about the perp walk.

Ever since the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn began to fall apart, I’ve questioned my initial reaction to his arrest last May for sexual assault. At the time, the contrast was stark: a powerful older man known for womanizing, and accused of worse; a much younger immigrant hotel maid; DNA evidence showing that a sexual encounter had taken place. To parade Strauss-Kahn in front of cameras, on the way to his arraignment, seemed no greater an injury than the prosecution itself. Especially since a jury would eventually decide his fate.

Except that now, a jury never will. Prosecutors dropped the charges, after determining that Nafissatou Diallo, the Guinean maid, was such a habitual liar - about, among other things, a past gang rape that had never taken place - that her testimony would never hold up in court.

So if justice will be served here, in any direction, it will have to be cosmic justice, meted out by the crowds.

By that I don’t mean mob rule; the urge for vengeance is, in part, what makes people tolerate perp walks in the first place. But wrongs that aren’t fully addressed by the courts are sometimes handled, fairly ably, by public opinion. A reputation changes. A career stops short. Or slowly, steadily, attitudes change, until egregious behavior is no longer tolerated.

The Strauss-Kahn story might well play out this way. Yes, the unraveling of the case has been troubling for many reasons, including the fact that some early assumptions turned out to be wrong. Given what we know now, the theatrics of Strauss-Kahn’s parade before the cameras did seem to taint a presumed-innocent man with the trappings of guilt. (And if the perp walk is wrong for a wealthy world leader accused of rape, it’s wrong for alleged street criminals, too.)

But this story also irks because it feels so unfinished. We’ll never know precisely what happened in that hotel room. But whatever happened was problematic. However consensual or not the encounter was, Diallo and Strauss-Kahn didn’t enter into it as equals.

In that sense, Strauss-Kahn remains implicated. Whether or not you believe the French woman who has accused him of a 2002 assault - another disputed story that has yet to be fully vetted - it’s clear that the former International Monetary Fund chief sailed through French politics for years treating women with disdain, while calling it admiration. He used his power for seduction. That isn’t usually illegal, but it can catch up with a person. Bill Clinton’s presidency is forever marked with an asterisk. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career revival is on hold.

And in France, Strauss-Kahn’s reputation is in flux. His image might or might not be tainted, or damaged for good. But this public reflection is itself a form of progress. We’re living in a time when a powerful man’s behavior toward women is the source of widespread angst, even in France. When the bulk of public sympathy, when a rape accusation is made, goes to the alleged victim. If the stigma of rape is waning, public opinion is headed in the right direction.

And yet the terrain is still trickier for victims of rape than for victims of most other crimes. There is still a sad debate over whether publicly naming rape victims would drive them into silence. There is still a sense that rape survivors are held to higher standards of behavior, that fending off attacks is their responsibility. That’s why several thousand women in Toronto and Boston staged “SlutWalks’’ last spring, after a Toronto police spokesman said that “women should avoid dressing like sluts’’ to avoid being victims of assault.

Given the progress we still need to make, the Strauss-Kahn case has been a disturbing distraction. Sadly, there will always be women - such as Diallo or Crystal Mangum, who falsely accused three Duke University lacrosse players of rape in 2006 - who lie, or take their accusations too far, or seize on more enlightened attitudes for personal gain. The question is how much those few cases will turn back the clock for true victims of rape.

That’s nothing the courts can address on their own. Instead, it will be up to the crowds.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.