U.S. prosecutor weathering the storm of the Strauss-Kahn caseJames Cohen in The Globe and Mail, July 08, 2011
by MICHAEL POSNER
It’s been a memorable summer for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. – but not a particularly happy one.
In the space of 30 days, his office lost two high-profile court trials and appears to have bungled a third case, the sensational allegation that Dominique Strauss-Kahn – former International Monetary Fund managing director and Socialist aspirant to France’s highest elected office – tried to rape a Sofitel hotel chamber maid.
The latter dossier is now expected to be dropped, after investigators belatedly discovered that the key witness, a 32-year-old African immigrant, lied about her past and her actions in the minutes after the alleged sexual assault, raising questions about her credibility.
For Mr. Vance, elected 17 months ago to succeed the long-serving (35 years) Robert Morgenthau, 91, the handling of the Strauss-Kahn affair brought a barrage of criticism and demands that he recuse himself from the case.
That is not about to happen.
Indeed, while some critics have lamented the D.A.’s approach to what’s become known in France as “l’affaire DSK,” most criminal-law experts say Mr. Vance, 56, has had very little room to manoeuvre and has acted properly.
“Reasonable minds will differ on this, but I can understand moving forward as they did, particularly if they had confidence in the facts,” says Columbia University criminal-law professor Daniel Richman. “I won’t say [charging him] was right or wrong, but it’s an understandable judgment when you’re operating on a knife edge, [you] want to avoid giving preferential treatment to someone like Strauss-Kahn, and want to avoid what I think was a very real flight risk.”
In fact, adds Fordham University criminal-law professor Martha Rayner, “while we may have the presumption of innocence in this country, as it played out in the DSK affair, there is almost always a rush to judgment because charges usually have to be brought before a judge within 24 hours and the ability to do in-depth investigations is limited.”
Her Fordham colleague, James Cohen, agrees, noting that the U.S. legal system has never operated on the principle of “investigate first and charge later. That’s not how we do it. We don’t typically investigate the complainants until we get close to trial.”
If anything, Ms. Rayner says, Mr. Strauss-Kahn received preferential treatment from the district attorney. “For the clients I often represent – the indigent – you are denied bail, you sit in jail, you can lose your job, your house and custody of your children, and no further investigation is conducted until the trial.”
In this instance, clearly, significant resources were brought to bear on the accuser. “If our system operated the way it should,” Ms. Rayner says, “that kind of care and attention should go into every case.”
As soon as Mr. Vance received new information, raising doubts about the witness’s credibility – having lied on her asylum application about being gang-raped in Guinea – he disclosed it to defence counsel and applied for a court hearing. Mr. Strauss-Kahn was subsequently released from his stringent bail conditions.
“Personally,” Prof. Cohen says, “I think he [Mr. Vance] is doing a fine job.”
The glare of media klieg lights is not unknown to Mr. Vance, son of the late lawyer and diplomat Cyrus Vance, who served as secretary of state under president Jimmy Carter.
Before returning to his native New York in 2004, where he became a partner at Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello & Bohrer, he spent 16 years in Seattle, working as the lead defence lawyer in a series of headline-grabbing cases.
There, Mr. Vance’s track record was spotty. One client, insurance salesman Joseph Meling, was convicted of killing two people – and attempting to poison his wife – with cyanide-laced Sudafed. The appeal failed. On behalf of another, Will Fualaau, a student who fathered two children with his Grade 6 teacher, Mary Letourneau, he filed a multimillion-dollar negligence suit against the school district and police department. That, too, was dismissed.
And Mr. Vance defended Dr. H. Richard Winn, former head of neurosurgery at the University of Washington medical school, on charges of over-billing. Eventually pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, Dr. Winn was given five years probation, ordered to pay $500,000 in fines and perform 1,000 hours of community service.
But he also registered some wins, including a $4.5-million settlement from the NCAA and the University of Washington, for firing its football coach, Rick Neuheisel, for betting on college basketball games.
Born on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Mr. Vance attended private schools in New York and earned an undergraduate degree from Yale University. Taking his law degree at Georgetown University, he worked under the legendary Mr. Morgenthau as an assistant D.A. in Manhattan from 1982 to 1988, prosecuting fraud and organized crime.
In interviews, Mr. Vance has given various explanations for his decision to move to Seattle. One was to escape the considerable shadow of his father, who continued to practise law in Manhattan.
“I was very proud of my father,” he once said. “I also felt that it was good for me to build a life separate and apart from his home territory.”
His father apparently took a dim view of the move, telling Mr. Vance, “You’re raising a white flag on your career.”
On other occasions, Mr. Vance said his wife – the former Peggy McDonnell (daughter of Allen & Company investment banker T. Murray McDonnell) – did not want to raise young children in New York, and that they were in pursuit of “adventure as a couple.” They now have two children, both in high school.
In Seattle, Mr. Vance spent seven years with Culp Guerson & Grader, before starting his own boutique firm with other attorneys. Most of his work involved criminal cases.
“You wanted to stay out of his way,” said one prosecuting attorney who played recreational soccer with him. “I think he believes it’s a contact sport.”
Back in New York, Mr. Vance carefully bided time, waiting for Mr. Morgenthau’s retirement announcement before declaring his candidacy. He won the veteran prosecutor’s endorsement during the election campaign and waltzed home with victory, capturing 91 per cent of the votes cast.