Limits of the law

December 04, 1991

We have the uneasy feeling that the William Kennedy Smith rape trial which opened this week in Florida will be a tawdry spectacle that ends as an exercise in futility.

Were it not for the prominence of the individual on trial, the case would rate only brief stories in the local newspapers. But because of Smith's prominence, the trial no doubt will go down as a landmark case in the phenomenon called "date rape" -- a term meaning the sexual assault of a woman by a man she has willingly accompanied as opposed to an unknown assailant.

Before the trial got under way, Judge Mary E. Lupo expressly ruled out the admission of any testimony about the woman's past as well as Smith's past. It matters not, said Judge Lupo, whether the woman may have led a promiscuous life, and likewise it matters not whether Smith may have been sexually aggressive with other women. The jury may only hear evidence relating to what happened on the beach on a single night last spring at the Kennedy vacation compound in West Palm Beach.

It would seem, therefore, that the prosecution has an exceedingly difficult task. Unless a surprise witness comes forth who saw the alleged rape, or unless there is evidence of bodily injury to the young woman, the case in the final analysis comes down to Smith's word against the woman's. He maintains they engaged in consensual sexual relations; she maintains she was forcibly raped.

If that is what the case boils down to, then it is difficult to see how a conviction can result. The reason: The standard of proof required for criminal conviction is "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Whenever a case comes down to one witness' word against another, there will always be a reasonable doubt.

So the Smith case may in the end prove only that the law is an inadequate mechanism to deal with "date rape."

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