For Fla. prosecutor, there is 'no Camelot mystique'

June 23, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Until the William Kennedy Smith rape case turned her into a reluctant celebrity, Florida prosecutor Moira Lasch had worked in relative obscurity.

When the case goes to trial in August, a nation's attention will be focused on the gutsy University of Maryland law school graduate who has become the very public adversary of America's best-known political family.

"For her, there is no Kennedy Camelot mystique," noted defense attorney Jorge Labarga, whose firm represents the alleged rape victim. "For Moira, this is just your basic little rape case."

The "basic little rape case" has made headlines around the world and has thrown a spotlight on the 40-year-old Ms. Lasch, a steely professional who has a stellar reputation and a long tradition of winning her cases.

Defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and court reporters use these words to describe her: thorough, prepared, efficient, professional, methodical, matter-of-fact, calculated, relentless.

Palm Beach County State Attorney David Bludworth assigned Ms. Lasch, chief of the department's felony division, to the case soon after Mr. Smith, the nephew of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., was accused of raping a woman at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach on March 30.

She has declined to talk to reporters since then, but her courtroom demeanor and strategy suggest a woman undaunted by the publicity, the pressure or the prominence of the Kennedy family.

"She's everything I hate in a prosecutor," criminal defense attorney Dean Wilbur told the Palm Beach Post. "She's very intelligent, incredibly thorough and makes a good appearance in court."

Ms. Lasch, who grew up in Maryland and is married to a public health dentist, will face an all-star line-up of lawyers from Miami, New York and Washington when trial begins.

"She is very cool, very calculated; and she will not be intimidated," said former Palm Beach County prosecutor David Acton.

When taking a deposition from Sen. Kennedy in New York recently about the night the rape allegedly occurred, Ms. Lasch made her position clear: "I cannot give you special treatment or preferential treatment," she said in the May 1 questioning of the senator. "I am not going to justify every question to you."

The senator is one of 82 witnesses that prosecutors have indicated they may call to testify at the trial.

Later in the deposition, speaking with Sen. Kennedy's attorney, Gregory B. Craig, Ms. Lasch said: "[Sen. Kennedy] can either answer [the questions] or not answer them. He is not going to decline to answer certain questions because he doesn't like the questions or [because] you don't want him to answer them."

At preliminary court hearings in West Palm Beach, Ms. Lasch has wrangled repeatedly with Miami defense attorney Mark Schnapp, and the courtroom squabbles have brought out a sarcastic, hard-bitten edge that Ms. Lasch usually does not put on public display.

The flaps between the two attorneys have involved Ms. Lasch's frequent references to the "Kennedy organization" and her perception that the Kennedys' "publicity machine" is attempting to manipulate the case.

While she is known as reserved and somewhat aloof, Ms. Lasch also has a wry sense of humor that occasionally surfaces in court.

After a serial rapist spat on her one afternoon at a trial, Ms. Lasch showed up the next day in court in a raincoat.

When the same man screamed that the fresh-faced prosecutor was a "pointy-nosed . . . white bitch," she retorted in the hallway later, "I do not have a pointy nose."

Ms. Lasch was named Florida Prosecutor of the Year in 1987 after obtaining three convictions in the murder-for-hire killing of the assistant city manager of West Palm Beach. She devoted more than a year to the cases.

A 12-year veteran of the prosecutor's office, she spends weekends and evenings preparing her cases. Her greatest strengths, according to colleagues are that she picks good juries and she knows the case of the opposing side as well as her own.

Attorney Charles Vitunac, a longtime friend, said Ms. Lasch is "incensed at the criminal mind and how people can do the things they do."

Ms. Lasch left the prosecutor's office briefly to do civil litigation a few years ago but grew bored and returned to the state's attorney's office after only a few months.

Former West Palm County Circuit Judge Carl Harper said Ms. Lasch, whom he called "a tiger in the courtroom," is compelled by criminal law because it's "life in the raw."

And County Circuit Judge Gaye Broome said, "She's very sensitive to the victims of crime. That's one reason she likes the work. She feels she's doing good.

She deals every day with people and their tragedies, trying to get a just result."

Ms. Lasch grew up in Cheverly and Riverdale. Her parents, Dr. John Kehoe and his wife, Shirley, still live in Riverdale.

A 1977 graduate of the University of Maryland law school, Ms. Lasch also earned a degree in art history from Vassar.

In 1977, Ms. Lasch served as a law clerk to then Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Robert Watts, now a lawyer with Piper & Marbury.

"She came to me with all that Vassar polish, and she was so shy," Mr. Watts recalled.

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