Smith verdict reasonable, experts say Publicity made this case unusual, observers find.

December 12, 1991|By New York Times

Several experts on rape and the law said yesterday that the jury in West Palm Beach, Fla., had little choice but to acquit William K. Smith of accusations lodged by a Florida woman, given the evidence it was presented.

They also said that women who had been sexually assaulted should not be discouraged from reporting rape by the verdict or the unusual amount of publicity surrounding the case.

"This was not a typical he-said, she-said case," said Susan Brownmiller, who wrote "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape" (Bantam), which is often cited as the first reference of rape between acquaintances or dates.

Susan Estrich, who teaches at the University of Southern California and wrote "Real Rape," said that "too much is read into the results" of highly publicized cases. She said yesterday's verdict "does not mean every man will be acquitted, or should be."

Referring to Smith, who was accused of raping the 30-year-old woman at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach over the Easter weekend, she added, "He was a particularly credible witness and the judge's decision to exclude evidence that in other jurisdictions would have been admitted was a damaging blow to the prosecution's case."

Estrich said that women who have been sexually assaulted should realize that this case differed from most rape cases because of the identity of the defendant. Most rape cases are not covered by newspapers every day or carried live on television, even in states where cameras are allowed in courtrooms.

Ruth Jones, a staff lawyer with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington, said she was concerned that viewers who watched the Palm Beach case would get the wrong impression of how the criminal justice system handles most rape cases.

"The perception is that what people see on TV in high profile cases is typical," Jones said.

"Most cases are prosecuted in obscurity. The issue of whether or not the woman's name should be published, or even the defendant's name, doesn't arise because no one's covering these cases. So it's a false perception that this is what happens in a rape case. Indeed the statistics show most cases don't come to trial."

Estrich also said that rape victims should consider that in the Palm Beach case, "both the accuser and the accused were treated with greater respect inside the courtroom than outside," adding:

"The restrictions on evidence are stricter in court than in the press. For most victims, the only thing they're going to have to deal with is the courtroom. Hard as it was for the woman to recount this story, many women's vision is in fact much worse than what this woman went through inside the courtroom. We didn't see a parade of her ex-boyfriends. The nightmare was not so much what happened in the courtroom as what happened in the press, and that wouldn't happen to most women."

As for what the jury decided, Brownmiller said it was not "an unfair verdict."

"Given the testimony, I think there was reasonable doubt," Brownmiller said, "I never saw this as a date-rape case, I saw it as a celebrity rape case.

"I was impressed with her testimony, but when I heard his, it was plausible. My conclusion, just sitting there watching CNN, was this was a case of bad exploitative sex, but that's different from rape."

Estrich said, "The jury did not conclude she had lied, it concluded the prosecution had not made out its case against him."

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