Florida trial of Smith case will put spotlight on issue of acquaintance rape

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.

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

"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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