Ruth Marcus
Columnist July 5, 2011

My high school French is rusty but serviceable enough to understand the hotel clerk’s answer to my question about Dominique Strauss-Kahn: “C’est une catastrophe.”

As it happened, we were in Normandy, touring the D-Day beaches, as the sexual assault case against Strauss-Kahn collapsed. So the inspiring tableaus of the landing sites may have had something to do with my defensive reaction to the news.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

More precisely: with my defensive reaction to the French reaction to the news. The American cemetery in Normandy contains the graves of 9,387 servicemen who died to liberate France. So perhaps I could be forgiven for bristling more than usual at expressions of Gallic outrage over the barbaric American legal system.

As in Bernard-Henri Levy’s Daily Beast post denouncing the “globally observed torture” of Strauss-Kahn’s perp walk. “This vision of Dominique Strauss-Kahn humiliated in chains, dragged lower than the gutter — this degradation of a man whose silent dignity couldn’t be touched, was not just cruel, it was pornographic,” Levy declared.

This is over the top but, I have to admit, not as far as I originally thought. In fact, the more I learn about the crumbling case and the prosecution’s conduct, the more concerned I have become.

Some have argued that the very fizzling of the case against Strauss-Kahn represents the triumph of the American legal system. William Saletan in Slate: “What the collapse of this case proves is that it’s possible to distinguish true rape accusations from false ones — and that the government, having staked its reputation on an accuser’s credibility, diligently investigated her and disclosed her lies. The system worked.” Peter Beinart in the Daily Beast: “whether or not DSK goes free, his case reflects well on American justice. We can hold our heads high.”

Not mine. The system worked — but only after Strauss-Kahn lost one important post and, most likely, his chances for another, even more important one, the presidency of France. Maybe it couldn’t happen to a creepier guy, but Strauss-Kahn has been done a terrible disservice. It remains possible that the housekeeper is both liar and victim, but it is looking less and less likely. Either way, the case against Strauss-Kahn cannot be sustained. Her credibility is too shattered.

Prosecutors were too hasty in bringing charges against Strauss-Kahn, then too slow in unraveling — and exposing — the problems with his accuser. The argument that they needed to act quickly to prevent his leaving the country is unconvincing. Surely the head of the International Monetary Fund would have been back in the neighborhood soon enough, but after prosecutors had done the necessary homework about their victim. Alternatively, Strauss-Kahn could have been removed from the plane and arrangements made for him to remain voluntarily in the United States while the investigation unfolded. Or he could have been let free, thereby removing the deadline for prosecutors to seek an indictment. Did anyone really think the IMF chief was going to pull a Roman Polanski and flee?

As to the slowness in discovering and revealing the shakiness of the case, “The minute we realize that our case may be taking a different posture, we run and shout it from the highest mountain,” Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon told the Wall Street Journal.

Not exactly. Strauss-Kahn was arrested on May 14. Less than two weeks later, his lawyers wrote to prosecutors warning of “substantial information that . . . would seriously undermine the quality of this prosecution and also gravely undermine the credibility of the complainant.” What looked like sleazy defense tactics now seems prescient.

At least by June 8, prosecutors recognized they had a problem, when the housekeeper acknowledged lying — about a gang rape, no less — on her asylum application. It was not until June 30, after discovery and translation of the incriminating conversation with her jailed boyfriend, that prosecutors made their doubts public.

We have, thankfully, a criminal justice system that takes seriously the word of an immigrant chambermaid against that of a powerful international figure. We have, thankfully, a criminal justice system that requires prosecutors to hand over exculpatory evidence. Any time a criminal case is dropped, any time an accused is acquitted at trial, there is the inevitable questioning about the ruin of a reputation. That is an unfortunate but unavoidable cost of an adversarial system. But the cost in this case was pushed unnecessarily high by needlessly aggressive prosecutorial tactics.

C’est une catastrophe.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com