'Lessons'

December 12, 1991

The swift acquittal of William Kennedy Smith in the sensational rape trial in Florida yesterday should surprise no one. As we stated at the outset of this spectacle, when a case comes down to one person's word against another's, it is virtually impossible to establish guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is the long-established standard required under our legal system.

This being so, it is not accurate to say that the jurors believed Smith was telling the truth and his accuser was lying. It simply means that the jury didn't know which person was telling the truth, and this required a verdict of not guilty. The case will without question remain forever shrouded in ambiguity.

In such cases, we seek "lessons." One, for certain, is that young women ought to think twice about going home with men they meet in bars at 3 o'clock in the morning; you might get raped. Another is that young men not take home women they meet in a bar at 3 o'clock in the morning; you might get charged with rape. And yet another is that prosecutors, knowing the heavy burden of proof required in criminal cases, should avoid bringing charges when the evidence comes down to one person's word against another; you will almost always lose the case.

Is another "lesson" of this case a subtle message that women should not report rape cases? Perhaps, but it shouldn't be. If there had been a single piece of corroborating evidence of the young woman's story in this case - a scratch on the defendant's face, a piece of torn clothing, a witness who heard a shouted "no" - the outcome might have been different. Each case always stands on its own. And this particular case stood on very weak legs.

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