Law
4:12 am
Sun August 21, 2011

Strauss-Kahn Case A Big Test For Manhattan D.A.

The next few days may tell us a lot about the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The former International Monetary Fund chief is due back in court on Tuesday, and prosecutors in New York are weighing whether to go forward in spite of big questions about the credibility of Strauss-Kahn's accuser.

The man who will make that call is Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. It may be the hardest decision he's faced since taking office 20 months ago.

The Path Back To NYC

Vance has some big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Robert Morgenthau, held the job for 35 years. He's said to be the model for the rumpled, seen-it-all D.A. Adam Schiff on the long-running TV show Law and Order.

Vance cuts a very different figure. With a head full of silvery-red hair and designer glasses, he looks more likely to be cast as a corporate attorney or the son of a former secretary of state — which is exactly what he is. Friends describe Vance as something of an idealist.

"He wanted this job because he really believes in the justice system. He believes that you need somebody to run an office like this with that kind of power who will do the right thing, as he's fond of saying," says Elkan Abramowitz, a partner at the New York law firm where Vance worked before running for D.A.

Vance grew up in New York and worked in the Manhattan D.A.'s office after law school. In 1988, he moved to Seattle, in part, he said, to build a name for himself, far from his father's sphere of influence. Vance moved back to New York in 2004 and ran for D.A. when Morgenthau retired five years later.

"Everything that we do and every decision that I try to make is focused on two questions: Does it make us safer and is it fair? One without the other I think are unacceptable," Vance said in a speech in January.

That approach has been sorely tested by the Strauss-Kahn case. At first, Vance drew praise for having the guts to indict one of the most powerful men in the world for sexual assault. But then the case started to unravel, as Vance's own investigation raised troubling questions about the accuser's credibility. His critics — like New York defense attorney Ronald Kuby, who frequently opposes Vance's office in court — say the inexperienced D.A. moved too fast.

"Fueled by the desire to finally get that big case, Vance rushed to indict, rushed to hold DSK without bail, reaching for the highest possible headline, resting on the slimmest possible evidence," Kuby says.

Trial Or Not

Vance declined to be interviewed for this story, but his supporters say he's handled the case as well as possible under the circumstances. Still, the case has already become a political liability for Vance. In July, Strauss-Kahn's accuser, Nafissatou Diallo went public, telling her side of the story in the media and at a rally with black community leaders. The message from her lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, seems to be: Take the Strauss-Kahn case to trial or count on a tough re-election campaign.

"Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is too afraid to try this case. We believe that he's afraid he's going to lose this high-profile case," Thompson says.

But Vance's supporters say that kind of political pressure won't sway his decision.

"I've known Cy Vance for a long time. Fear is not an issue," says Linda Fairstein, a former prosecutor who ran the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan D.A.'s office for 26 years. She supported Vance's campaign. "It will come down to whether they're able to work with Miss Diallo and whether anything that's happened in this circus outside the criminal justice system has compromised the case."

Diallo may have further undermined her credibility when she filed a civil lawsuit against Strauss-Kahn last week, adding fuel to the theory that she's looking for a big payout. That hasn't made Vance's decision about whether to continue with the criminal case any easier. It's a call that might even keep the D.A. on Law and Order up at night.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.