All the World’s a Stage: When a Prosecution becomes a Media Circus

Case Study in Criminal Law

May 14, 2011. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the director of the International Monetary Fund and front runner in the French presidential campaign, was handcuffed and led off an Air France flight as it sat on the tarmac at New York’s Kennedy International Airport.  DSK’s arrest and prosecution for the sexual assault of a maid at a Manhattan hotel created a media frenzy, not only in New York City, but throughout the world. The case was the subject of 150,000 headlines in the ten days following his arrest, and countless news outlets played footage and published photos of Strauss-Kahn’s “perp walk.” The perp walk in particular elicited outrage in France, where it is against the law to show images of celebrity defendants.  As the summer wore on, onlookers became increasingly polarized about the case.  Either DSK was an innocent man railroaded by an overzealous law enforcement system and a shadowy political smear campaign, or he was a serial sexual predator who had forced himself on an illiterate immigrant housekeeper.  At the center of this maelstrom was the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, led by Cyrus Vance, Jr. For Vance, the DSK case was by far the “hottest potato” his office had encountered in his relatively young tenure as DA.  Every legal movement, every statement by one of his staff, every rumor or leak was published and examined by the scandal-hungry public.

Harvard Law School professor Philip Heymann’s new case study, “Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Cyrus Vance: Dilemmas in a High Profile Prosecution,” explores issues faced by prosecutors when the justice system becomes the center of a media circus.  How should district attorneys conduct prosecutions of famous or influential people who are accused of crimes? Is it possible to conduct a “normal” investigation when the perpetrator is an international figure and when the case is followed so closely by the media? Can—and should—the DA ignore the pressure to come to a quick decision? 

In the “A” case, students debate the pros and cons of the DA’s bail decision: Should Vance ask the judge to deny bail to DSK, and, if so, what are the repercussions of that decision? This question triggers discussions on the best way to build an investigative strategy at the onset of a criminal case. Students are encouraged to develop investigational hypotheses to explain what occurred in DSK’s hotel room that day, and what facts they would need to prove or disprove their theories. The “B” case takes place in August 2011, when Vance must decide whether or not to bring the case to trial. Students reevaluate their opinions from the “A” case discussion. They consider what Vance should do next and the political and legal repercussions of each possible action. They also explore the role of the DA: should the DA bring forward cases if the prosecutors are not convinced of guilt? At what point should the DA’s office decide guilt or innocence, and at what point should a jury decide? The case initiates larger discussion on the nature of the U.S. prosecutorial system.

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About Lisa Brem

Lisa Brem is the Case Studies Program Manager at Harvard Law School.
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