Smith trial may have chilling effect on rape reports

December 07, 1991|By Susan Baer

For Goucher College student Angela Evosevic, watching the William Kennedy Smith rape trial on television has been a reminder of not necessarily what was, but what could have been.

What could have been if, after having been raped at a Johns Hopkins University frat party four years ago, the then-freshman had reported the incident to police instead of remaining silent.

What could have been if she, like the 30-year-old Florida woman who has accused Mr. Smith of rape, had pressed charges against her assailant, a Hopkins premed student.

"I knew exactly what a trial would be like," says Ms. Evosevic, 22, a math and women's studies major at Goucher. "I knew I'd be asked, 'Were you drinking? What were you wearing? What sexual past do you have?"

"I just knew I'd be further humiliated. And the reality is, I knew I wasn't going to win."

For perhaps the first time ever, the entire nation is privy to every graphic moment -- every accusation, denial, sob, pointed finger, raised voice and objection -- of a live rape trial.

However unrepresentative this case may be with its celebrity defendant, gold-plated defense team and constant vigil by lights and cameras, it could affect women's future decisions about pressing charges against their assailants, say lawyers, counselors and even rape victims themselves, possibly reinforcing the fear and reticence women such as Ms. Evosevic already feel.

"This is going to have a chilling effect," says Denise Snyder, director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. "Women in our society already face a lot of victim-blaming. What this trial is doing -- which is very much what the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings did -- is reinforcing the reality of what women have to go through when they break the silence."

"It's sending a clear message that, 'For all those women who are victims of sexual violence, if you don't want to experience smearing and blaming, you'd better think twice before you stand up and point a finger.' "

Baltimore County assistant state's attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, too, says he can envision this highly publicized trial, televised on CNN and Court TV, causing women to retreat from coming forward and pressing charges against assailants. "And that's the worst thing that can happen."

"It's very scary," says Mr. Shellenberger, who heads the office's rape/child abuse unit. "Whatever happened on that beach -- and that is something that has to be sorted out by the court -- you have a woman who made an immediate complaint of sexual assault, which to me is the most crucial factor in a rape case, and suddenly you have people praying for and kissing the defendant in the courthouse."

Indeed, some women reacted with anger to this week's proceedings, especially to defense attorney Roy Black's cross-examination of the accuser in which he pressed her about details and inconsistencies in her various reports.

"It's infuriating to me that she had to go through that," says Ms. Evosevic, adding that, while she used to regret not having reported her rape, she no longer did. "Those aren't fair questions. She's not going to remember details. From my experience, and the experiences of other women, they don't remember very much more except for being held down."

"I really think it's terrible the way they tried to break this woman's credibility down," says Linda Rook, legal assistant at the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center of Baltimore County. "Finally, sexual assault is exposed, victims of rape are coming forward, and they're trying to quash the whole thing."

For many, however, Mr. Black's grilling was nothing more than what was expected and typical of defense tactics in any rape trial.

"The fact is, the attorneys for [Mr. Smith] wouldn't be doing their job if they didn't try to make her look bad," says Mindy Mintz, a Baltimore lawyer and former TV reporter who was date raped more than five years ago

in the Midwest and never reported the crime. "If you stand up and point a finger and say 'I was raped,' there are some things you're going to have to undergo. And it's not going to be pleasant.

"On the other hand, if you let the rapist go unpunished, he'll do it again. That's one of the things I regret most about my experience. I know he raped again."

Mr. Shellenberger says he routinely impresses upon rape victims the realities of pressing charges, including the courtroom experience and their chances for winning. "I always use the same words. I say, 'This is going to be the second worst day of your life. The worst day was when it happened, the second worst will be when you walk into that courtroom.' "

The true impact of this case on women's future actions depends greatly on the verdict, many point out. "The outcome will be a big determinant," says Ms. Mintz. "If the evidence shows he's guilty, and if there's a conviction, it will be an assurance for women out there that there's justice."

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