Jury selection set in Smith rape case Observers say trial will define date rape.

October 29, 1991|By Newsday

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- After watching seven months of public debate over his guilt or innocence, William Kennedy Smith finally will begin tomorrow to face the people who must decide whether he raped a woman over Easter weekend.

In a selection process expected to take weeks, prosecutors and defense attorneys will question scores of candidates from Palm Beach County to find six jurors, along with several alternates, to weigh the evidence in country's most-publicized acquaintance rape trial. Smith, 31, will come to court for only the second time since his arrest.

But these jurors, who will be sequestered for the scheduled three-week trial set to begin Dec. 2, seem fated to decide more than Smith's guilt or innocence. Their verdict, experts predict, will help shape the continuing national controversy over acquaintance rape for years to come.

Like the clash between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas over alleged sexual harassment, the Smith rape trial will focus on how to know who is telling the truth when only two people are involved in a case.

"It's really going to be a landmark case -- especially because of the overwhelming publicity," said Mary Koss, a University of Arizona professor who is a leading expert on acquaintance rape. "It's not like the issue hasn't been out there for years, but people hadn't been paying much attention to it. Now they are."

There lies, for University of Miami law professor Mary Coombs among others, one of the larger concerns with the publicity.

"The case itself may not be typical, but it has turned into a prototype, and the final outcome will become all too important in the public's mind," Coombs said. "An acquittal may feed the suspicion that women who bring these charges are not credible."

But there is another complication in this case -- the love-hate reaction to the Kennedys.

Calling it the "Kennedy issue," Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Mary E. Lupo instructed attorneys to prepare oral questions for prospective jurors to determine their attitudes toward the Kennedy clan.

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