Smith case spotlights acquaintance rape issue

May 26, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac

The most popular read in Palm Beach these days is a real page-turner: State of Florida vs. William Kennedy Smith. Famous political family, money and power, tropical locale, a mystery woman and a purported crime -- there's something in this police report for everyone.

But when Mr. Smith, a member of America's best-known political family, is arraigned on rape and battery charges in Florida Friday, the case will enter a new phase. In formally accusing Mr. Smith of raping her, a 29-year-old Florida woman has set the stage for a courtroom drama that could place unprecedented public focus on acquaintance rape.

"The case is extraordinary," said William Bopp, a criminologist at Florida Atlantic University who has written extensively about crimes against women. "Normally, acquaintance rape is very low-profile. This is rare.

"There is potential for harm to everybody in this trial," added Mr. Bopp, who has monitored the case closely. "The accused has never been convicted of anything, and he's getting obliterated in the press. You've got heavy artillery on both sides. You've got a woman who believes herself the victim and a man who believes he did nothing wrong. This won't be a scholarly exercise. It will be a war."

Mr. Smith is not expected to appear at his arraignment, when his lawyers will enter a formal plea of not guilty. A trial is months away.

Nearly 149,000 rapes occur in America each year, according to the National Crime Survey sampling of U.S. households issued by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Statistics. More than one-third are acquaintance rapes. Of the 58,800 acquaintance rapes that occur each year, only half are reported to police.

Mr. Smith, the 30-year-old nephew of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., has kept silent on what transpired the night he and his accuser met, except to say he did nothing wrong. But in depositions to Palm Beach police and prosecutors, the woman made personal disclosures -- including her thoughts on men and relationships -- that will almost certainly resurface through the cold filter of the courtroom.

In depositions, the woman said that she didn't trust men and that she had just started counseling to deal with childhood trauma so that she would be a better parent to her daughter, now 2. The woman, the stepdaughter of a Midwest industrialist, said she was beaten by her natural father, a welder for Chrysler Corp. in Twinsburg, Ohio.

She gave birth prematurely to a daughter two years ago, after having miscarried her daughter's twin. She told prosecutor Moira Lasch that parenthood had pushed her to seek counseling herself because, as a single parent, she "wanted to make sure that all my decisions of being a parent were the right ones."

She told police that she wasn't interested in having a relationship with a man for now, and that the night she says she was raped was the first time in months she had been out at night with friends.

On that Easter weekend night, March 30, the young woman met Mr. Smith, a medical student, at a chic Palm Beach nightclub.

It was a night that was to culminate in Case No. 1-91-5482CF: State of Florida vs. William Kennedy Smith, a case that has so far yielded 1,300 pages of police documents and created headlines around the world.

L It is a case that the woman says never should have happened.

"We were talking medical stuff, and I thought I could trust him," the woman said in a May 8 deposition. "It's rare that I can find somebody who I can talk with. . . . Frankly, all I was interested in was hearing what he had to say and talking with him. . . . I'd met somebody who I thought could become a friend."

The case, which involves legions of lawyers and investigators, likely will ultimately rest on sexual consent: his word against hers.

On this point, everyone seems to agree: The woman and Mr. Smith ended the evening at the Kennedy estate. The woman says she accompanied him to a private beach and that when she began to leave, he tackled and then raped her.

Mr. Smith's cousin, Patrick Kennedy, in a deposition called the woman "Willie's whacked-out friend" and said Mr. Smith told him that she had a "Fatal Attraction" to Mr. Smith.

The case has generated enormous publicity: Palm Beach police, for instance, have sold more than 60 copies of their investigative report at $225 apiece.

The documents are full of interesting tidbits: Mr. Smith drew his own blood at his attorney's office in Washington in order to present police with a sample; in a sweep of the estate grounds 13 days after the alleged crime, police turned up a single nickel with a metal detector.

"This isn't a case where physical evidence from the scene is going to figure," said Mr. Bopp. "The whole controversy will be over consent. Never before have we seen an acquaintance rape case this well attended, this frenzied.

"It's a crime [acquaintance rape] that has not gotten much public attention, though it's gotten scholarly attention," he said. "This could change that."

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