WORLD

A courtroom spectacular

William Kennedy Smith goes on trial for rape

RAE CORELLI December 16 1991
WORLD

A courtroom spectacular

William Kennedy Smith goes on trial for rape

RAE CORELLI December 16 1991

A courtroom spectacular

William Kennedy Smith goes on trial for rape

THE UNITED STATES

Gilbert Martin’s hotdogs were selling faster than they ever had in his six years as a street vendor. St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church was charging $100 a week for spaces in its crowded parking lot. The perspiring staff of the Sir Speedy print shop produced tens of thousands of document photocopies at eight cents apiece. At week’s end, merchants along several blocks of Olive Ave-

nue in downtown West Palm Beach, Fla., were experiencing something rare in recession-hit America—a business boom. Its source: several hundred broadcast and print journalists from around the world who descended on the Florida resort city for the long-awaited and heavily publicized rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, the 31-year-old nephew of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy. Said Martin: “People buy their hotdogs and sit here like they’re in a stadium waiting for the Kennedys to come.” The stadium allusion was apt because the proceedings in Room 411 of the Palm Beach County courthouse quickly took on the characteristics of a larger-than-life spectacle. Live, commercially sponsored worldwide coverage of the trial by the Atlanta-based Cable News Network (CNN) offered sexually explicit testimony, legal experts discussing developments in the style of sports color commentators and glimpses of the rich and powerful Kennedys,

who had to take turns using the three seats set aside for the family in the cramped courtroom. At week’s end, A. C. Nielsen, the TV ratings company, reported that CNN’s audiences were from four to nine times higher than usual.

Smith, a recent graduate of Washington’s Georgetown University Medical School, could be imprisoned for 4Vfe years if the jury of four women and two men finds him guilty of raping a

30-year-old Jupiter, Fla., woman in the early hours of March 30 at the Kennedy seaside estate in nearby Palm Beach. Last April, after NBC News and a handful of American national newspapers publicized her name, Maclean’s followed suit. But Florida’s rape shield law requires that her identity be protected. And during her often tearful testimony last week, the complainant was electronically masked to TV viewers and her name was not broadcast.

The woman claims that she and Smith met on the night of March 29 at a Palm Beach nightclub called Au Bar, where they talked and danced. She says that she offered to drive him home and that when they reached the Kennedy estate, he invited her in and proposed a latenight walk on the beach. She testified that she turned to leave when he took off his clothes to go for a swim, but that he grabbed at her ankle, chased and tackled her—and raped her. Defence lawyer Roy Black contends that Smith

and the complainant kissed in the car and that she removed her shoes and pantyhose before they walked on the beach. The sex, he maintains, was consensual, not forced.

Prosecution witness Anne Mercer testified that she went to the Kennedy home later that night in response to a phone call from the complainant, who claimed that she had been raped. Her friend, said Mercer, was hysterical, and Smith, seemingly indifferent, was dishevelled. But Black appeared to discredit the witness under cross-examination, when Mercer admitted that she had been paid $40,000 by the syndicated TV program A Current Affair for two interviews in which she provided details that she had not given to the police. On Friday, Edward Kennedy testified that he had gone to Au Bar with his son Patrick and Smith, but that the Kennedys left without Smith. Although the complainant alleged that she screamed repeatedly for help when Smith attacked her, the senator, who was back at the estate at the time, testified that he heard nothing.

Several Kennedy family members appeared at the trial last week. They included Ethel Kennedy, the widow of senator Robert F. Kennedy; Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the wife of Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver; Patricia Kennedy Lawford, a former wife of the late Hollywood actor Peter Lawford; and the defendant’s mother, Jean Kennedy Smith. Once the trial began, Jean Smith had to remain outside the courtroom on the chance that she might be called as a witness. There was speculation about whether the Shrivers’ daughter, newscaster Maria Shriver, and her husband, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, would attend.

Circuit Judge Mary Lupo has vowed to end the trial with a verdict by Dec. 20. Most legal experts say the outcome will depend less on physical evidence than on which of the principals the jury believes. Said Harvard law professor and defence attorney Alan Dershowitz: “If this is a trial at which it is handsome, charming Dr. Smith’s word against the word of a woman he took home at 3 a.m. for a walk on the beach, he will win.”

But in the case known as The State of Florida vs. Smith, there are already winners: the happy entrepreneurs of Olive Avenue, where Gilbert Martin shares the sidewalk in front of the courthouse with vendors hawking T-shirts bearing images of the Kennedys. In Palm Beach, the trial publicity has also rescued the owners of Au Bar, who had been on the verge of having to close because of unpaid back taxes. And Rev. William Mayer of St. Ann’s Church, who plans to use his parking-lot fees to help fund the parish school, said: “Fortunately, something good has come out of all this.” It was an opinion that ultimately would be shared by only one side in Judge Lupo’s courtroom.

RAE CORELLI with HILARY MACKENZIE in West Palm Beach and correspondents’ reports

HILARY MACKENZIE