Pretrial publicity spurs sympathy for accused devil


July 26, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

Until recently, I didn't think it was possible to feel sorry for a Kennedy.

These days they seem less a family than a giant therapy group.

F. Scott Fitzgerald could have been writing about the Kennedys when he wrote ". . .they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Ted Kennedy is probably the most powerful voice for liberal causes in America today. How much more powerful he could be, jTC however, if we did not keep reading about his excessive drinking and womanizing.

And when William Kennedy Smith, 30, was charged with rape in Palm Beach, Fla., in May (after an evening of drinking with his 59-year-old Uncle Ted) it didn't seem so very surprising. Just another piece of dirty linen flapping on the family line. (Though, in fairness, you can find a number of non-scandalous, positive stories about the non-scandalous, positive members of the Kennedy family.)

That is how we know the accused today: William Kennedy Smith. But that is not the name he uses. A close medical school friend of his told a reporter: "I've never, never heard him tell anyone that he was a Kennedy."

He was known as Will Smith to his acquaintances and Willie Smith to friends. But today we must have Kennedy as his middle name. It makes the story so much better, the headlines so much sexier.

Because what kind of story would it be if it were known as the "Smith" rape case? There are more than 100,000 reported rapes a year in America. How many of them make the front page and the top of the news?

William Kennedy Smith is accused of rape, but who are we kidding when we say "accused"? I don't know anybody who believes he is innocent.

Each day as I go to work, I pass a line of news boxes that include the New York Post and the New York Daily News. The other day I saw the same huge headline on both papers: WILLIE RAPED BEFORE. (The other New York tabloid, Newsday, had in very large type: "He's Raped Before.")

And I thought to myself: Did I miss something? Have there been some trials I never heard about?

As it turns out, one woman says Smith raped her in 1988 and two others say he sexually attacked them in 1988 and 1983. As far as has been determined, none called the police. None filed charges. None spoke out until now.

This does not mean the alleged attacks did not happen. Maybe the women were scared. Maybe they didn't want to relive the events in court. Maybe they felt someone as powerful as a Kennedy could make trouble for them.

But maybe, just maybe, William Kennedy Smith did not "rape before." Maybe he has never raped. Maybe he is innocent.

I don't know. You don't know. We only think we do.

That is one reason we have trials in this country and not witch hunts. And I can remember the last time everybody was sure of someone's guilt.

It was the McMartin Pre-School case in California. It was the longest, most costly case in U.S. history. In 1984, seven teachers were indicted on 115 counts of molesting school children. The stories went on and on about the terrible goings on in that school, how the children suffered, how the beasts who ran the place had violated them.

But, eventually, charges were dropped against five of the defendants, and the remaining two were acquitted on 40 counts. One was then retried on eight counts and the jury deadlocked. At that point, the prosecution decided to forget the whole thing.

David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, in an investigation for which he was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize, examined 2,000 print and electronic stories about the case. And he found: "In the early months of the case in particular, reporters and editors often abandoned two of their most trumpeted traditions -- fairness and skepticism. As most reporters now sheepishly admit -- and as the record clearly shows -- the media frequently plunged into hysteria, sensationalism and what one editor calls 'a lynch mob syndrome.' "

Today, how many of us have already knotted the lynching rope for William Kennedy Smith?

Do I think he's really innocent? No. How could I? I read newspapers. I listen to radio. I watch TV. So how could I believe this guy is not guilty? The allegations the three women have recently made may never be allowed in court. But we have read all about them in great, gruesome detail.

What if William Kennedy Smith is innocent nonetheless? Much has been written about the ordeal of the victim in this case and we should be sensitive to that. Getting a man convicted of rape has been too much of an ordeal for women in the past. And it has kept rape victims from coming forward and reporting the crime.

But surely there is a small amount of human decency in all of us that recognizes that a man unjustly accused of rape goes through an ordeal, too. Surely nobody believes that every man accused of rape must be guilty merely because he has been accused.

One newspaper quoted a friend of Smith's as saying: "I hope this doesn't cast a shadow on his plans."

Cast a shadow? How about drop a bomb? William Kennedy Smith has graduated from medical school and wants to practice medicine. But even if he is found not guilty of rape, would you like him touching you?

If he is found guilty, I think he should go to prison. If he needs treatment, there are psychiatrists in prison who can treat him there.

But if he is found not guilty, what do we do then? Can we really say he has not already been punished? And how will we make it up to him? What will we say?

L Sorry, Willie? Too bad your middle name wasn't Hassenfeffer?

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