WASHINGTON -- Women's rights advocates expressed fears yesterday that the outcome in the Palm Beach rape case and the recent Senate confirmation of Clarence Thomas, despite Anita Hill's accusations of sexual harassment, might send a message to women that their stories of date rape or sexual abuse will not be believed.
"That's my obvious fear -- that the message will be that women are liars and that acquaintance rape is not a crime," said Susan Estrich, a law professor at the University of Southern California.
"The general disbelief of women is not news, at least not to women," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. "That's why an estimated nine out of 10 rapes are not reported."
But Ms. Ireland and others said that the Palm Beach case has had the positive effect of putting a national spotlight on the problem of date rape.
The prosecution of William Kennedy Smith "opened up a dialogue about date rape," said Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica (Calif.) Hospital Medical Center.
Police in Palm Beach took seriously the complaint filed by the 30-year-old woman against the nephew of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and the case was fully prosecuted, Ms. Abarbanel noted. Though Mr. Smith was acquitted, she said, she doubts that the verdict will have long-term impact in dissuading women from pursuing complaints.
"This was highly unusual, a case about the rich and famous. I don't think it will be a real deterrent to rape reporting," Ms. Abarbanel said. "A year from now, if a woman is deciding whether to bring a rape charge, she will be thinking about how she will be treated by the police, how her family and friends will react, not this."
Ms. Estrich agreed that the "not guilty" verdict in the Smith case should not be seen as a general verdict on charges of date rape. "It is important not to read too much into this. In a criminal case, Smith deserved the benefit of the doubt, and that's what he got," she said.
"Most prosecutors' offices have counseling services that tell rape complainants what they can expect if their case goes to court," said Plato Cacheris, a Washington criminal defense lawyer who successfully defended a rape suspect two years ago.
"I think the system is fair the way it is," Mr. Cacheris said, speaking of both rulings that prevented the defense from introducing evidence of the complainant's abortion, out of wedlock childbirth and cocaine use and those that stopped the prosecutor from citing other women's claims that Mr. Smith had attacked them.