Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
Lawyer for Strauss-Kahn Accuser Hopes Gambles Will Pay Off
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Prosecutors are expected to announce next Tuesday whether they will proceed with their allegations that former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted a hotel housekeeper at the Sofitel Hotel in Midtown Manhattan in May.
The case has been on shaky ground since July when the District Attorney announced he had concerns about the credibility of the woman at the center of the case. But there’s one person who has been fighting to keep the prosecution alive: her lawyer, Ken Thompson.
Thompson, 45, introduced himself to the world as Nafissatou Diallo’s lawyer the day prosecutors told the court she had lied on her asylum application, her tax returns and to investigators.
He says now he hadn’t planned to talk to the press that day. But as soon as Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers left the courthouse, he strode up to the cluster of microphones and television cameras in front of the building.
As if channeling the graphic, straight-talking former federal prosecutor within him, Thompson gave what sounded like the opening argument in the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
"She got up and started to run for that door and started spitting Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s semen out of her mouth in disgust all over that hotel room," Thompson thundered, shouting into the flash bulbs.
He went on for more than a half hour. Thompson is praised for being a graphic orator in the courtroom, but that day, critics said he went too far. When he talked about the bruises found on Diallo, he used the word “vagina” five times in 20 seconds.
"That day, July 1, I was under a lot of pressure because everyone thought the case was collapsing," said Thompson in his law office near Union Square. "Everyone thought that Ms. Diallo was a liar. I stood in front of a hostile press corps and wanted to tell the truth."
And once he got going, he didn't stop. As if presenting his own star witness in front of a jury, Thompson soon made Diallo available for interviews with the national media— first Newsweek, then ABC’s "Good Morning America," on which she emotionally claimed she was pushed by Strauss-Kahn in his Sofitel Hotel suite and how terrified she was.
That same week, Thompson invited the international media to meet Diallo at his very own church — Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, one of the largest predominantly black mega-churches in the city. Diallo stood on a stage flanked by dozens of African-American community leaders, who ended up taking more air time than she did. She seemed almost shell-shocked by the camera bulbs flashing in her face
"What happened to me, I don’t want that to happen to any other woman," said Diallo almost inaudibly to the rows of reporters.
Thompson said it was actually Diallo’s idea — not his — to bring her case to the media. He knows it was a gamble.
Sources close to the District Attorney’s office say his decision to go along with the idea irritated prosecutors and only gave them another reason to drop the case. And if Diallo wound up saying anything inconsistent from what she would later say on the stand, the defense lawyers could trounce her in cross-examination.
Thompson said it’s been "awkward and strange" as a former prosecutor watching his relationship with the DA deteriorate – but he truly believes Diallo was assaulted.
"It's as if Ms. Diallo’s being put on trial and it's been sort of surprising to me – the level of hostility that she has and I have encountered," said Thompson.
A Lawyer For Alleged Victims
Thompson has made a business out of sticking up for high-profile female victims under siege.
Among his clients are Sherr-Una Booker, the woman who accused an aide to former Governor David Paterson of domestic violence, and Sandra Guzman, an editor who alleged sexual harassment and discrimination against the New York Post.
Critics say Thompson purposely gravitates toward high-publicity cases, but friends disagree.
"He doesn’t gravitate toward them. They gravitate toward him," said Sterling Johnson, Jr., a federal judge in Brooklyn and a longtime mentor of Thompson’s. "What happens is you have a lawyer who has a reputation of being very good at what he does, people will come to him."
Thompson said that’s how he got the Diallo case. He said her relatives tracked him down in May after hearing about his performance as a young federal prosecutor on the Abner Louima case in which five NYPD officers were indicted for sodomizing a man with a broomstick in 1997.
Thompson was barely three years into the job when the police officers were charged. To his surprise, Thompson was tapped to give the opening argument. He practiced late at night for weeks in the bathroom of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn because it had a mirror and a long sink to pace in front of.
Thompson's opening statement to the jury detailed the attack on Louima in graphic detail:
"Abner Louima was taken into a back room and beaten a third time. That third beating was far more vicious than the first two beatings. And that's because inside that bathroom, Abner Louima suffered more than just a beating. Ladies and gentlemen, Abner Louima was tortured in that bathroom, and his torture was cruel and it was simply inhumane."
Joe Tacopina defended one of the officers in the case and remembers how Thompson captivated the courtroom.
"He did an opening in that case that was fiery and passionate, and most U.S. Attorneys don’t do that stuff,” said Tacopina. "They’re very like, 'The evidence will show…' or 'I submit to you, Ladies and Gentlemen…,' and they talk all robotic, but Kenny doesn’t.”
A Man of Few Smiles
Thompson is a tall man with a commanding presence who rarely smiles. But behind the immaculate desk in his office are photos of himself grinning with his son and daughter, 4 and 6, respectively.
"I have this serial killer look all the time, but my son can take that away," said Thompson, staring at one picture of his son climbing on his back. "I don’t know why. It’s just not in me to smile that much. I guess I'm always feeling the weight of the world."
Thompson grew up in public housing in Harlem and was abandoned by his father when he was five. He was raised by his mother, Clara Dolores Thompson, along with his brother and sister, in Co-op City in the Bronx. Thompson’s mother became one of New York City’s first female police officers on patrol.
Thompson went on to John Jay College and then NYU Law School, before becoming a lawyer for the U.S. Treasury Department, a federal prosecutor, an associate in a corporate law firm and finally, a plaintiff’s lawyer on Fifth Avenue.
Thompson said being a plantiff’s attorney is a natural fit; he’s always been drawn to cases, like Diallo’s, where victims seem powerless.
"This is a case about gender and power and class. I’ve said that from day one," said Thompson.
And some seasoned lawyers say being outspoken from day one could end up being Thompson’s greatest strategy in the case.
Sanford Rubenstein represented Abner Louima when Thompson was prosecuting the case. Rubenstein has never been one to shy away from cameras, but at the time, he actually advised Louima not to speak publicly before Thompson and the other prosecutors took the case to trial. But Rubenstein says Thompson’s different tactic now could be a successful one.
"What it is, is the trial before the trial in the court of public opinion – attempting to influence the public to support the victim," Rubenstein said. "Remember, a jury pool comes from the public, and while the judge will tell the jury that they shouldn't be influenced by anything that they’ve heard before, we don’t know what goes through people’s minds when they sit on a jury."
But at this point, the only jury that may be left to convince is the one that will be hearing the civil suit Diallo filed against Strauss-Kahn last week.
Several sources have told Thompson the DA will drop the criminal case. He took some heat for filing a lawsuit so quickly, but Thompson said filing a lawsuit after Strauss-Kahn was off the hook would have drawn ridicule.
And, he added, try serving a complaint on a guy who’s already hightailed it back to France.