Fla. jurors find Smith not guilty Brief deliberation puts sudden end to notorious rape case

December 12, 1991|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,Los Angeles Times

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A Florida jury needed only 77 minutes yesterday to find that William Kennedy Smith was not guilty of raping a woman at his family's estate last March, bringing to a swift end the most highly publicized trial of its kind in recent times.

Mr. Smith first closed his eyes, then broke into a small smile when the verdict was read. He then squeezed the hands of his mother, Jean, his brother, Steven, and his sisters, Amanda and Kym. And, clearly jubilant, he bounded to his feet and embraced his lawyer, Roy E. Black, in a clumsy bearhug.

Mr. Smith was acquitted of the rape charge and of a separate misdemeanor count of simple battery. His accuser was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

Shortly after leaving the Palm Beach County Courthouse, tears streaming down his cheeks, Mr. Smith -- the nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. -- told a cheering crowd: "I want to thank you. . . . I have an enormous debt to the system and to God."

At a press conference across town, a lawyer for the woman who accused Mr. Smith said, "We accept the verdict. But a verdict does not equate to innocence."

The attorney, David Roth, quoted the woman as saying, "All I have endured is worth it, if I have made it easier for one woman to make what was the only choice I could, so that I could look at myself in the mirror, and more important, my daughter, as she grows up." The woman has a 2-year-old child.

Prosecutor Moira K. Lasch said she would have no comment. She left the courtroom smiling, escorted by her husband, Dr. Alan Lasch, a dentist employed by Palm Beach County.

The four women and two men on the jury slipped out of the courthouse by a side entrance without comment.

The case burst into the nation's consciousness last April, when the woman accused Mr. Smith of raping her at the Kennedy's oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach on the balmy, moonlit night of March 30. It brought saturation news coverage and stirred debates about the treatment of sex crime and the collision of rights of free press and fair trial.

The weakness of the state's case against Mr. Smith had become increasingly apparent in recent days, and lawyers said that the rapid verdict was not surprising.

Although the accuser was a strong witness during her testimony two days last week, Mr. Smith was also convincing on the stand Tuesday.

Since there were no other witnesses and the physical evidence was inconclusive, "you ended up with a reasonable doubt," said Bruce Rogow, a defense lawyer and law professor at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "These cases are always difficult for the prosecution."

The verdict came after 1 1/2 hours of closing defense arguments in which Mr. Black again tried to portray Mr. Smith as a man who had become a target because of his celebrated family's name.

"You can't find somebody guilty because of the family they come from," he said.

In her closing argument, also 1 1/2 hours long, Ms. Lasch said Mr. Smith had raped the woman because she had turned to leave the estate when he tried to lure her to swim in the ocean with him. "The defendant's ego cannot take the rejection," Ms. Lasch said.

Mr. Smith's account of the events were "murky," the prosecutor contended.

She told the jurors that to let Mr. Smith go free would be unequal justice. "There is no aristocracy, no class that is above the law," she said.

Several lawyers blamed prosecutor Lasch for a weak presentation of the case and for a dubious strategy that included once lecturing the judge on criminal law and, on Tuesday, posing a long series of improper questions that prompted the judge to threaten her with a contempt-of-court citation.

"It was a sad effort, and in the legal community around here, the image of that prosecutor's office is going to suffer," Mr. Rogow said.

But Palm Beach County State Attorney David Bludworth was believed to have felt pressure to bring the charges lest he be accused of knuckling under to the Kennedys -- as he alleged had happened in the investigation of David Kennedy's death in 1988.

David Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, died of a drug overdose at the Brazilian Court Hotel in Palm Beach, was a cousin of Mr. Smith's.

But Paul H. Rothstein, specialist in criminal law at Georgetown University, doubted that a sharper prosecutor could have made a difference in the case. "Lawyers aren't magicians; you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," he said.

In his comments outside the courthouse, Mr. Smith, a 31-year-old medical school graduate, praised his mother, Mr. Black, the jury, the judge and family members who had sat behind him in the courtroom during the 16 days of jury selection and 10 days of the trial.

"I only hope I can be as good a parent to my children as my mother has been to me," he said, as his mother stood by his side.

His mother told reporters after the verdict that she felt "wonderful." Although she was not surprised, she said: "I was relieved."

Later, in Boston, an obviously pleased Senator Kennedy expressed his gratitude at the verdict.

"I hope that Willie, whom I love very much, can resume his life and his medical career and that other members of our family who are private persons can regain their privacy."

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