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The Pernicious Perp Walk

What the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case reveals about spotlight-hungry prosecutors

Gene Healy
July 5, 2011

Editor's Note: This column is reprinted with permission of the Washington Examiner. Click here to read it at that site.

I have to admit, I found the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) rape case irresistible. It stroked so many of my political prejudices: distrust of globalist bureaucrats, disdain for “public servants” living high on the hog, and residual annoyance with the French.

In DSK, the sanctimonious former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), you had the Platonic form of the “champagne socialist,” a character whose flaws would be too over-the-top even for an Ayn Rand villain.

He was the perfect metaphor for the IMF, that “fund for nation-rape,” as my colleague Doug Bandow describes it, “an institution of privilege that routinely acts to the disadvantage of the vulnerable.”

Here was a jet-setting champion of the poor who was charged by New York authorities with forcibly helped himself to the help in his $3,000-a-day luxury hotel suite—brutally raping a poor immigrant maid from West Africa. You can’t make this stuff up.

Or… maybe you can, because last week the case against DSK imploded due to serious doubts about his accuser’s credibility. A key piece of evidence was the maid’s taped phone conversation, a day after the alleged rape, with a boyfriend being held on drug charges: “Don’t worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I’m doing.”

On Friday, recognizing that “the circumstances of this case have changed substantially,” a New York judge released DSK from house arrest.

Back in May, when New York law enforcement paraded DSK before the cameras, hands cuffed behind his back, the French were outraged. “Incredibly brutal, violent and cruel," France’s former justice minister gasped.

Irritating as it might be to admit it, the French have a point. The “perp walk”—in which suspects are ritually displayed to the media, trussed up like a hunter’s kill—has become common practice among prosecutors. But it’s a practice any country devoted to the rule of law should reject.

“Perp walks are pernicious devices,” writes law professor Ernest F. Lidge, “they humiliate innocent defendants, taint the jury pool and titillate the public.” Too often, they’re “used by prosecutors to build careers.”

I’ll say. As a spotlight-hungry U.S. attorney in the ‘80s, Rudy Giuliani used this tactic to great effect in his war on insider trading. In 1987, he had three investment bankers cuffed at their desks and frog-marched out. One case was dropped for lack of evidence, and the other two defendants had their convictions overturned on appeal.

Ambitious prosecutors often opt for the public perp-walk even when defendants offer to turn themselves in. Legal challenges rarely succeed. Federal courts only find violations the Fourth Amendment when they’re transparently staged for the benefit of the media, as in a 2000 case where a defendant already in custody was taken out of the station and marched in again for the local news.

Anything that serves “a legitimate law enforcement purpose,” loosely defined, generally passes muster, even if the suspect isn’t dangerous and the perp walk mainly serves as a photo-op.

But even if the courts will let prosecutors get away with ritual humiliation of people who haven’t yet been convicted, as professor Lidge argues, the gratuitous perp-walk should be considered a serious violation of prosecutorial ethics.

Even when I was sure DSK was guilty, I was perturbed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s question-begging comment: “if you don't want to do the perp walk, don't do the crime.”

Finding out whether the accused did the crime is what we do at trial. If he’s innocent, then he’s been publicly humiliated by agents of the state for no good reason. And even if he’s guilty, he deserves to have his case tried in the courts, not on cable news.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008). He is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, where this article originally appeared. Click here to read it at that site.



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