Smith seeking 'open-minded' jury Selection begins slowly in Palm Beach rape trial

November 01, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Before 200 journalists held back by yellow crime-scene tape and a handful of Palm Beach County courthouse workers in Halloween costumes, William Kennedy Smith said yesterday that he hoped to find "six people with an open mind" who will clear him of rape charges.

Before he entered criminal court for jury selection, Mr. Smith, 31, flanked by his mother, aunt, two sisters and brother, said in a slightly trembling voice, "I'm innocent of the charges. I'm confident that when the process is completed, I'll be found innocent. I look forward to putting this behind me and getting on with my life and my career, which I've missed a great deal these past several months."

The nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., then went into the courtroom to join his three lawyers from Miami and two jury selection consultants from Texas.

A 30-year-old Jupiter, Fla., woman accused Mr. Smith of rape Easter weekend at the Kennedy seaside mansion in Palm Beach. She said Mr. Smith tackled her, held her down and attacked her as she tried to escape. Defense lawyers have indicated they will argue that the two agreed to have sex.

It was clear immediately yesterday that selecting a jury will take considerable time. In the first 3 1/2 hours, three prospective jurors were questioned.

Prosecutor Moira Lasch asked perfunctory questions about pretrial publicity, and the first three said they had formed no set opinion.

Defense lawyer Roy Black of Miami wanted to know much more about the people who might sit in judgment on what already could be the nation's most publicized rape case.

The defense attorney asked whether they watched the television programs "A Current Affair," "Hard Copy," "Oprah," "Geraldo" or "Larry King Live"; whether they read local newspapers, New York tabloids or the National Enquirer; and whether they subscribed to magazines, including Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan and Vogue.

And he wanted to know what they thought about the Kennedy family.

Before the proceedings, Mr. Smith said, "Today, the court will begin to try to find six people who have an open mind, who will look at all the evidence in the case."

The first person in the jury box said she would. Priscilla Roper, 44, of Boynton Beach, said, "You're not sure whether it happened or didn't happen. There are two sides to it. There have been so many things in the newspapers, I'm not sure whether it's a fact."

Mr. Black, as he did with succeeding potential jurors, asked Ms. Roper what she thought about President John F. Kennedy.

"I read about his womanizing," she said.

Of Senator Kennedy, she said, "There's that incident in Massachusetts," she said, referring to the fatal accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969. "He has a tendency to -- he is a single man, you know, different things in that area."

Would she hold that against Mr. Smith?

"One has nothing to do with the other," Ms. Roper said.

The second prospective juror, Theresa Poterek, a 30-year-old speech therapist from Riviera Beach, said she initially thought Mr. Smith was guilty but has changed her mind and doesn't know whether he's guilty.

Minutes before Mr. Smith and his family arrived at the courthouse, two women dressed as vampires, a woman wearing a John F. Kennedy rubber mask and several others in clown costumes walked past the throngs of journalists.

The vampires, Sandy Mitchell and Carol Caider of West Palm Beach, said they were making a slight political statement -- about the press. "They don't come out like this for other rape trials," said Ms. Mitchell.

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