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IMF chief s trial could hinge on timeline, DNA

NEW YORK, May 17 – No one disputes that at around midday Saturday, Dominique Strauss-Kahn left his posh Manhattan hotel in a hurry. But why – to flee a crime scene, or just to grab some lunch?

Those starkly different possibilities illustrate the dispute taking shape between prosecutors and high-profile defence lawyers for Strauss-Kahn, the French politician and International Monetary Fund chief accused of attempting to rape a hotel maid.

At a bail hearing on Monday, Strauss-Kahn\’s attorney Benjamin Brafman gave a glimpse of his future trial strategy when he ridiculed "inaccuracies" in the official timeline of the alleged rape attempt and flight.

According to police and prosecutors, Strauss-Kahn was in his $3,000 a night hotel suite on the 28th floor of the Sofitel near Times Square when a chambermaid entered and, to her horror, found herself being sexually assaulted by a naked man.

Initially, police said this happened at around 1:30 pm, but authorities now say it was closer to 12:00 pm.

Next, prosecutors say, the white-haired Strauss-Kahn — until now considered a serious contender for the French presidency — fled to JFK Airport, and boarded an Air France plane. He was 10 minutes from take-off and getting beyond reach of US law when police removed him from his first class seat.

Prosecutor John McConnell told the court that video footage shows Strauss-Kahn looking like "a man who was in a hurry." And on the basis of that timeline, Judge Melissa Jackson denied bail to a suspect who might flee.

But Brafman came up with a startling alternative to the official scenario.

"The reason he was rushing is because he had a luncheon appointment," said Brafman, a renowned courtroom performer who has previously represented Michael Jackson and hip hop mogul Jay-Z.

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Promising to produce that lunch partner to corroborate the alibi, Brafman then fired another shot: the Air France flight was booked long before and had nothing in common with a sudden attempt to escape, he said.

"The theory he ran out of the hotel and ran to the airport, running away, is simply not true."

And if Strauss-Kahn showed no sign of being in a panic or attempting to flee after noon, then that was "inconsistent with logic and consciousness of guilt," Brafman said.

Still, even if Brafman gathers a convincing timeline for his client in the aftermath of the alleged crime, that does not necessarily clear up what happened in the Sofitel room.

Here, prosecutors indicate they have a strong hand. In addition to testimony from the woman herself, police have made a forensic examination of Strauss-Kahn, looking for DNA or other physical evidence of a rape attempt or struggle.

"The victim provided very powerful details," McConnell said. Results from a sexual assault examination of the alleged victim "corroborate her accounts" and a search of the hotel room indicates "there may be forensic evidence supporting the victim\’s version."

DNA or other compelling physical evidence could checkmate Strauss-Kahn. But so far his defence team shows no sign of nerves on this issue either.

Strauss-Kahn willingly submitted to further examination late Sunday without waiting for a judge to issue a warrant forcing him into the tests. So either defence lawyers genuinely thought they had nothing to fear or they were trying to get credit ahead of his bail hearing.

"We believe this is a very, very defensible case," Brafman said.

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Frank Bress, a professor at New York Law School, noted Brafman is a "very good" lawyer whose team has surely nailed down the timeline "so it works to their advantage. Otherwise, they wouldn\’t be making such a public fuss of it."

Apart from a potential smoking gun in the physical evidence, matched with the maid\’s testimony, Strauss-Kahn could face an unpredictable hurdle: the view from jurors plucked from a largely working class, multi-ethnic pool.

"It\’s a difficult case because of the publicity," Bress said.

"It\’s going to look like a classic rich white man taking advantage of a young immigrant woman. But a good defence lawyer like Brafman is going to do what he can before the trial, throughout the trial to make it clear that sort of prejudice can\’t apply."

There are other imponderables, chiefly the story and credibility of the maid. "You never know what\’s going to develop," said Bress.

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