Perp Walks, French Attitudes and the Lessons of Strauss-Kahn

We're at the end of a week of nonstop, breathless coverage of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. It has dominated headlines around the world, but nowhere more so than in his Native France, and here in New York, where the former IMF Chair stands accused of attempted rape and sexual abuse.

On Monday, I started my whirlwind week of legal and political analysis on MSNBC. The other guest was Elaine Sciolino, a New York Times correspondent in Paris. She is the author of the coming book “La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life,” to be published by Times Books in June. Can you believe it? La Seduction? Coming out in June? Her timing is impeccable. Sciolino actually has references, throughout her book, to Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

“In France, we are perhaps less puritanical than Americans about sexual matters. We don’t mind the ‘cavaleurs’ [pickup artists] because we are used them. It is a kind of joke for us."

But she went on to say that attempted rape is something altogether different. Even in France, where male virility is part of any politician’s public profile, rape is no joke:

“This affair might not change laws, but it may change attitudes … to hear all these men saying, ‘He is so seductive and just loves women.’ … Give me a break!”

Sciolino really got me thinking back to my second year law school class on Comparative Law - and about the differences in our legal systems, cultures, sexual mores and media.

It’s a good thing I was thinking about it, too; because today I finished the week with the tables turned: I appeared on France 24, France's international news network to speak with Markus Karlsson. He grilled me on the distinctions between “us” and “them.” Markus is sharp and he asked, specifically:

“How important do you think the court of public opinion is in the case? What kind of a role do you think it will have, from here on in?”

Ah, prejudicial pretrial publicity. Markus was getting at the heart of one of the biggest problems with our criminal justice system, especially in high profile cases. They take on a life of their own. The question was an astute one because it recognized the special role that trials have always played in American culture and society. From Aaron Burr to O.J. Simpson, celebrity trials have always been fueled by media sensationalism and speculation.

Our job, in the press is to satisfy the public's right to know about a case without intruding on the defendant's right to a fair trial. Add to the DSK case the international component and we have an even greater responsibility to get it right. The whole world is watching our and our justice system at work.

Next question:

“There’s been outrage here in France about Strauss-Kahn’s so-called ‘Perp Walk, when he was led in front of the cameras. Was that really necessary. Did police not have a choice not to do that? That’s a question that people on this side of the Atlantic are asking?”

The premise of Markus’ question is spot on: The treatment of Strauss-Kahn would have been much different in the French justice system, compared to here in the US. Strauss-Kahn would not have been paraded into and out of the police station in handcuffs and subjected to the media's cameras.

As discussed on the Brian Lehrer Show today, the so-called "Perp Walk" is illegal in France. It should be here, as well (what would be illegal would be the deliberate exposure of the suspect to the media for photographic purposes; obviously, the suspect has to be transferred from booking to the jail). The perp walk runs entirely counter to the presumption of innocence, and undermines the underpinning of our justice system.

Specifically, I hear from my French friends, that the images of Strauss-Kahn's perp walk has fed into anti-American sentiment in France. Many in France already believe the American justice system is all about show trials, attorney egos, and judges perpetually campaigning for re-election. At bottom, they believe our system is unnecessarily cruel.

Of course there is some truth to all of that. But the good of the American system of justice outweighs the bad; more than anything our system is about protecting the rights of the accused. We do a pretty go job of it, too, and nowhere more so than in cases where a defendant has the means at his disposal to mount a significant defense.

Surely, Dominique Strauss-Kahn will bring to bear all the resources at his disposal, in defending his case. The French people and Mr. Strauss-Kahn should consider him fortunate to enjoy the protections of our constitution--protections he would not enjoy had he been charged if charged when visiting most of the 187 countries that fall under the IMF’s purview.

Here in the U.S., DSK enjoys the same presumption of innocence as in his native France and can match the considerable resources of the state and prosecution – witness for witness, expert for expert, dollar for dollar -to maintain that presumption, throughout. Most defendants cannot. Ironically, Strauss-Kahn may receive a greater measure of justice than do most Americans charged with a crime.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.