The cameras and microphones were there for the first public appearance of Nafissatou Diallo, the chambermaid who was the previously anonymous accuser of one of the world’s most powerful men.
It was a far cry from the luxurious hotel suite in midtown Manhattan where Miss Diallo, 32, a Guinean immigrant, alleges that she was violently sexually assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the head of the International Monetary Fund and frontrunner for the French presidency who is commonly known by his initials DSK.
But just as significant as the location was the striking array of black leaders–pastors, lawyers, politicians and activists, including a prominent figure in the New Black Panther Party–who flanked her on stage as she made her own powerful statement: “What happened to me, I don’t want that to happen to any other woman.”
As if the DSK affair was not already controversial enough, Miss Diallo’s supporters threw explosive accusations about race and politics into the highly-charged mix–so much so that some are now beginning to doubt whether justice will ever be done in a case that is being ruthlessly conducted in the noisy court of public opinion rather than the calm of a legal chamber.
Miss Diallo’s backers were taking aim as much at Cyrus Vance Jnr, the Manhattan district attorney who was widely believed to be on the verge of dropping the case after his investigators uncovered multiple lies by Miss Diallo, as she was at her alleged attacker.
Her combative lawyer, Ken Thompson, is pursuing a high-risk scorched earth strategy, arguing not only that she suffered a brutal sexual assault but that she is now the victim of a racial conspiracy to abandon the prosecution.
He took his client–a Muslim who lives in the Bronx–to his church, the Christian Cultural Centre, in eastern Brooklyn, a completely different part of New York, to make that case.
Noel Leader, a former police sergeant who heads a group called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, accused Mr Vance of “throwing this victim of sexual abuse under a bus” and “re-victimising our sister”.
He then initiated an exchange with other Diallo supporters that sounded like the kind of exchange that takes place during worship in many echoed preacher-congregation inter-actions in many black churches.
“We ask, does race play a role?” his voice rang out–eliciting an affirmative chorus of “Uh-huh” from the crowd. “Does her gender play a role?” “Uh-huh,” came the response. “Is this a class issue?” “Uh-huh!”
Mr Leader is among those now arguing that black communities should withdraw political support from Mr Vance, the scion of a prominent Democratic family whose position is an elected one.
The church’s high-profile pastor, Rev AR Bernard, was less blunt but no less clear when asked if they were sending a message to the district attorney. “I think, and hope, that he’s intelligent enough to understand what has been implied here,” he said.
The gathering harked back to the 1980s when black leaders, most notably Rev Al Sharpton, sought to whip up community outrage to impose political pressure on prosecutors in cases they believed had racial undertones.
Indeed, Mr Sharpton was the model for the character of Rev Reginald Bacon in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the blockbuster Tom Wolfe novel that detailed how race, politics and class intertwined with the legal system of the New York of that era.
As the pressure intensified last week, Mr Thompson pursued two almost unprecedented tactics. He encouraged the key witness in a sex crimes case to abandon her anonymity and go public with her account of what happened before the prosecution had even decided whether to pursue the case.
And he also announced that she would be bringing a civil damages case, in which the burden of proof is lower than in a criminal one, against Mr Strauss-Kahn “very soon”.
Not only do civil proceedings normally follow criminal trials, but Mr Thompson has been fending off damaging claims that Miss Diallo has long planned to cash in on the case.
Last week, he appeared to establish that a taped telephone conversation between her and a man in prison–variously described as a fiancé, boyfriend or friend–did not after all involve her raising the potential financial benefit of pursuing her case.
What is not in dispute, thanks to DNA evidence, is that there was a sexual encounter between Mr Strauss-Kahn and Miss Diallo. The defence has not been drawn on its account of what happened, but has made clear that if required it will portray the events as consensual.
Funded by the fortune of his third wife, Anne Sinclair, an art heiress and former French television presenter who is standing by her man despite repeated revelations about his philandering, Mr Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers hired two major private detective agencies to investigate the maid’s background.
That tactic in turn imposed unusually strong pressure on Mr Vance’s office to conduct enquiries that established that Miss Diallo, who is illiterate, had lied about an alleged gang rape in Guinea on her asylum application and falsified tax returns.
“New York prosecutors are not looking to disbelieve the victim of an alleged sexual attack, far from it,” said David Feige, a former Bronx public defender who is now a Los Angeles-based legal drama writer working on the television adaptation of The Firm, the John Grisham thriller.
“The only thing that is any way true about the allegations that race, gender and class played a role in this case is, possibly, class. What is true is that Strauss-Kahn can afford the best defence thanks to his wife’s wealth and that means they have been able to force the prosecution to look at this accuser much more closely than normally.”
The case has witnessed a dramatic ebb and flow in the perceptions of the two protagonists since their brief encounter in the Sofitel hotel in Manhattan in mid-May.
Indeed, even as Miss Diallo and her supporters sought to bolster her reputation, tarnished at its low point by allegations in a New York tabloid that she had worked as a prostitute, Mr Strauss-Kahn has also faced a series of lurid accusations in France.
The latest to come forward is a legal consultant who said she had an affair with him in 1997 when she was 23 and he was a married 47-year-old. She described him as a “serial manipulator of women” with a “huge sexual appetite”.
Tristine Banon, a 32-year-old writer, has alleged that Mr Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her eight years ago. Fuelling the circus-like atmosphere, her mother, Anne Mansouret, has now claimed that she had earlier had an affair with her fellow Socialist party politician.
The latest twists to the case have been greeted with bemusement in France where the American legal system is already viewed with a mixture of confusion and contempt.
The febrile French political atmosphere as the next election approaches has only fuelled that mood. Mr Strauss-Kahn’s Socialist allies have sought to dismiss the case in New York as a sideshow, while media supporters of President Nicolas Sarkozy have given greater prominence to the allegations.
In a case that is already being played out very publicly in the court of public opinion, Mr Vance’s office added to the suspense last week.
Prosecutors said they needed more time for their investigations, obtaining another adjournment of a hearing that was first scheduled for July 18 and then again for tomorrow. It is now scheduled for Aug 23.
“We understand the district attorney is continuing to investigate,” Mr Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers William Taylor and Benjamin Brafman said in a statement.
“We are confident that when the investigation is completed, Mr Vance will move to dismiss all charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.”
Mr Brafman was in a less lawyerly mood when asked by The Sunday Telegraph about how Mr Thompson disparaged him at the Brooklyn church. “I will not dignify Thompson’s stupid, unprofessional comments with a comment,” he said.
And he was equally unimpressed by the decision to push Miss Diallo before the cameras. The process was an “unseemly circus”, he remarked.