A New York judge dropped all criminal sexual assault charges against ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on Tuesday, leaving him free to rebuild a shattered career after prosecutors said his accuser lacked credibility.
The decision to drop the case ended three months of sordid headlines on both sides of the Atlantic about the accusations by a hotel maid who told police the International Monetary Fund director forced her to perform oral sex on May 14.
Strauss-Kahn, who many had seen as the next president of France, was hauled off a plane leaving New York for Paris and arrested. He resigned from the IMF days later, his political plans in tatters.
Straus-Kahn left court smiling with his wife Anne Sinclair, saying in a statement that his life had been a "nightmare."
"I look forward to returning to my country but I have a few small matters to take care of first. I will discuss this at greater length (later)," he told reporters.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus initially stayed his dismissal of the case for an emergency appeal. But within two hours an appeals court rejected the last-ditch effort to push the case forward under a special prosecutor.
That appeals decision appeared to leave Strauss-Kahn free to return to France.
Prosecutors from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance on Monday outlined how they lost faith in the accuser, Nafissatou Diallo, 32, a Guinean immigrant who alleged that a naked Strauss-Kahn attacked her in his hotel suite.
While her account of the assault remained steadfast, Diallo told a series of lies about her past and about what happened immediately after the incident in the $3,000-a-night suite in New York's Sofitel hotel, prosecutors said.
Physical evidence was unable to prove lack of consent, leaving the case hinging on the believability of the accuser. But with her testimony changing again and again and as more and more lies about her past emerged, prosecutors concluded in a 25-page filing, "If we do not believe her beyond a reasonable doubt, we cannot ask a jury to do so."
"These past two and a half months have been a nightmare for me and my family," Straus-Kahn said in his statement. "I want to thank all the friends in France and in the United States who have believed in my innocence."
The case pitted supporters of Strauss-Kahn who said he was the victim of an overzealous U.S. criminal justice system versus backers of Diallo who complained it was an example of sexual assault victims being denied justice.
Strauss-Kahn's lawyers called Vance's decision to drop the case "courageous" and said there had been a "collective rush to judgment" by U.S. law enforcement and the media.
"You can engage in inappropriate behavior perhaps, but that is much different than a crime. And this case was treated as a crime when it was not," Strauss-Kahn lawyer Benjamin Brafman said outside the courthouse.
Diallo's lawyer Kenneth Thompson told reporters prosecutors would have pushed ahead with the case if the defendant had been a bus driver or a construction worker and not a famous person.
"District Attorney Vance has abandoned an innocent woman ... in a rape case and by doing so he has also abandoned other women who will be raped in the future," Thompson said.
NOT CLEAR YET
Three months ago, Strauss-Kahn was the world's leading financial diplomat and a confidant of presidents rescuing debt-ridden nations. His downfall was shocking. Pulled from an Air France first-class seat by police, he was thrown into New York City's Rikers Island jail on charges of attempted rape.
Yet he is not entirely in the clear. Diallo has filed a civil lawsuit against him, and he faces a separate inquiry in France from a writer who alleged Strauss-Kahn forced himself on her during a 2003 interview in Paris.
Diallo's lawyers are also taking the case to France where they had been trying to establish a pattern of sexual abuse by Strauss-Kahn and had tried to contact other women who may have had similar encounters.
Douglas Wigdor told reporters in Paris that "many women" around the world had contacted his office to recount similar claims of aggressive behavior by the former IMF head.
Strauss-Kahn needs to explain "how in nine minutes he was able to convince a woman who he had never met before to engage in a sexual relationship on a hotel floor," Wigdor said, adding that there was no explanation other than sexual assault.
Diallo's French attorney Thibault de Montbrial said there had been pressure on potential witnesses in France not to speak up about similar incidents involving Strauss-Kahn.
De Montbrial told Reuters he filed a complaint on Tuesday alleging that an ally of Strauss-Kahn's telephoned one woman and offered her money in exchange for her silence.
Strauss-Kahn, a former French finance minister, could make a dramatic return to French public life, but with his image tarnished by widespread reporting in France about his sexual behavior, most political analysts doubt he would risk competing with President Nicolas Sarkozy on April's ballot.
"Whatever has been said, a man with the abilities of Dominique Strauss-Kahn can be useful to his country in the months and years to come," Francois Hollande, the frontrunner among six candidates for the Socialist primary, told France Inter radio.
Asked whether Strauss-Kahn could take part in the October vote to choose the party's presidential candidate, Hollande said: "That depends on him."
French Socialists welcomed the dropping of charges and said they hoped Strauss-Kahn would return to public life where his expertise on global economics was sorely needed.
Socialist presidential hopeful Manuel Valls called the affair "an extreme waste for Strauss-Kahn and for France" and even ruling party Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said he deserved better and looked forward to listening to his ideas.
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.