It’s one of those cases that no novelist could ever have dreamed up. The managing director of the International Monetary Fund and a leading candidate for president of the French Republic spent last Friday night in a $3000-a-night hotel suite before being yanked out of the first-class section of an Air France flight to Paris and arrested for sex crimes that could get him many years in jail. He now sits in New York’s Rikers Island Prison, among a wide assortment of New York lowlifes, only a few miles but a world away from the Sofitel Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Dominique Strauss-Kahn has now resigned from his position at the IMF in order to devote full time to his defense and he vigorously asserts his innocence. Regardless of the eventual outcome, his political ambitions are surely at an end.
Needless to say, this how-the-mighty-are-fallen story has been a media sensation both here and in France, and will continue to be for months. Not surprisingly, reactions in France have been somewhat different than here and one major difference has been to the “perp walk,” where Strauss-Kahn was shown in handcuffs being led into court. The pictures were on the front page of papers around the world. In the United States, the perp walk is standard practice for prominent people accused of serious crimes. In France it’s illegal to print such pictures.
The perp walk has a long history in this country, going back at least to the 1930’s. Sometimes it has been a bow to intense public interest, such as with Lee Harvey Oswald after the assassination of President Kennedy, a perp walk that resulted in Oswald’s murder by Jack Ruby. But often it has been for the benefit of the prosecutor’s political ambitions. Thomas E. Dewey, when he was Manhattan District Attorney, alerted the media and then personally arrested Richard Whitney, former president of the New York Stock Exchange, for embezzlement, a case quite as sensational in 1938 as Strauss-Kahn’s has been today. And that year Dewey made his first run for governor of New York, losing only narrowly to Herbert Lehman, the popular incumbent.
At least Richard Whitney was guilty (he pled guilty and served three years in Sing-Sing—6,000 people turned out in Grand Central to watch Whitney board the train to prison). But Rudy Giuliani, as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, had Richard Wigton a stock trader at Kidder Peabody & Co. arrested in his office for insider trading and paraded through the company’s trading floor with Wigton in tears. He was never even brought to trial as charges were dropped. Giuliani had several principles of the Princeton/Newport firm arrested in the same fashion, but their convictions were overturned on appeal when the appellate court ruled that what they were accused of were not crimes at all. Of course, the arrests received far more press attention than did the eventual outcomes.
In short, the perp walk is hardly American justice at its best. It serves not the interests of justice but the interests of the media and ambitious politicians, while often damaging permanently the reputations of innocent people. In the age of the Internet, those photographs never go away.
The end of the perp walk would be at least one good outcome from this case.