THE SENSATIONAL WILLIAM KENNEDY SMITH CASE IN PALM BEACH PUT THE FOCUS ON THE DATE-RAPE ISSUE
BEYOND THE TRIAL
THE SENSATIONAL WILLIAM KENNEDY SMITH CASE IN PALM BEACH PUT THE FOCUS ON THE DATE-RAPE ISSUE
For the dynasty that once controlled the mythical American kingdom that Jacqueline Kennedy christened Camelot, it was a relatively happy ending, requiring no funeral or public mourning. At 5:10 p.m., as a balmy twilight settled over the high-society winter haven of Palm Beach, Fla., six jurors filed back onto the benches of the county courtroom that they had left only 77 minutes before. In fact, they had reached unanimity on their first secret ballot in less than a quarter of an hour—a decision so swift that it took some time for the defendant and his lawyers to return from their temporary headquarters at his family estate, the scene of the
alleged crime. As court clerk Deborah Allen read the jury’s verdict, finding William Kennedy Smith not guilty of raping a 30-year-old single mother from nearby Jupiter in the early hours of March 30 last Easter weekend, Smith defied the judge’s injunction against shows of emotion. He stood up to embrace his lawyer, Miami attorney Roy Black. Then, outside the courthouse, blinking back tears, he expressed gratitude for the “gift of family”—a family which some commentators have declared cursed and which Black later claimed had been as much on trial as Smith himself.
In the 10-day televised proceedings, Americans had once again confronted their complex
fascination with the controversial clan that has become the United States’ equivalent of royalty. And once again, the public laundering of the private Kennedy linen had rivetted—and divided—the nation. Kennedy supporters hailed the outcome as a form of familial vindication, while opponents blamed prosecutor Moira Lasch for ineptitude in failing to prove her case beyond a reasonable doubt. Some angry feminists termed the verdict yet another defeat in the increasingly bitter sexual debate. And many rape-crisis counsellors expressed concern that it would discourage other women from coming forward with accusations of date or acquaintance rape. But Ruth Jones, a staff attorney of the New York City-based National Organization for Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, cautioned against drawing hasty conclusions from a rape trial where a witness waved the complainant’s black-and-blue brassiere in front of an estimated three million TV viewers. Said Jones: “Women need to know that if they press charges, they are not going to be in the kind of media circus they saw here.”
As Jones pointed out, there was nothing
typical about a rape alleged to have occurred at a multimillion-dollar family compound once known as the Winter White House—or one whose key sexual encounter, described in differing lurid detail, had supposedly taken place on the same lawn where President John F. Kennedy chose his cabinet in 1960. For 10 days, history haunted Room 411 like an uninvited witness—especially when it elbowed its way through the silences that choked the testimony of Smith’s uncle “Teddy,” Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, the 59-yearold family patriarch who has become the embodiment of the tarnished Camelot legacy.
In a few terse, emotional phrases, Kennedy had evoked the family’s extraordinary sequence of tragedies. And when the senator’s voice broke over the mention of his brothers, Black needed to offer scant explanation. Fed by
biographies and constant tabloid headlines, most Americans could fill in the details of a family many feel they know as intimately as their own. For them, the controversial 1963 assassination of one brother, whom the family still refers to as “the President,” then the fatal shooting of another, Robert, on the night he won the California Democratic presidential primary five years later, had not only shattered the star-crossed Kennedys. They had also left scars on the national psyche. In fact, last week in a post-mortem on the trial, Black noted that Lasch’s major miscalculation had been misjudging the effect that Kennedy’s testimony would have on the jurors. Said Black: “When he came in and sat 10 feet from them, they were looking at a piece of American history.”
Still, most legal experts credited Smith’s own turn on the stand with delivering him from a possible 4% years in prison. Despite the testimony of 45 witnesses, most jurors agreed that the case had come down to his version of events against that of his accuser. Her sobbing account of her visit to the Kennedy compound had been compelling. But she had left unan-
swered many questions for which Smith offered an explanation in his testimony about a mutually agreed-upon sexual tryst. Among them: she could not remember when she took off her pantyhose, but he claimed that she did so in her car in his family parking lot before they headed for the beach.
Long after the verdict, those titillating details were still being debated by a public privy to more information than the jurors. For many, Smith had won his case even before the trial opened when Judge Mary Lupo barred the testimony of three prosecution witnesses who claimed that he had sexually assaulted them in similar circumstances. But even those claims proved contentious—another illustration of the still-murky legal terrain of date rape. In one sworn deposition, a fellow student at Washington’s Georgetown University, where Smith
received his medical degree in May, recounted a bizarre 1988 evening when she was so drunk that she let him take her home although she “never particularly liked him.” She said that there, too incapacitated to object, she watched him don a condom before she passed out. She added that the next morning, despite Smith’s cursory courtesies, she showered and stayed for breakfast until he waved her off with a noncommittal, “See ya.”
In her statement, it was not clear whether she was accusing him of date rape or of being a cad, the same shortcoming that Smith seemed ready to admit to on the witness stand. In his version of events, after the alleged victim had called him Michael and demanded to see his driver’s licence when he replied that that was not his name, he said that he began to regard her as “a real nut.” Following two couplings that Smith portrayed as consensual, he did little to hide his eagerness to hustle her off the family property. Legal experts said that the line is so fine between forced sex and insensitive loutishness that prosecutors seldom bring date-rape cases to trial and, if they do, they seldom win. And some women’s rights activists expressed concern that men might misread Smith’s acquittal as open season on forced sex. In any low-profile case, they argued, analysts might not have tried so hard to impose sweeping social implications. Said an exasperated Jones: “Why does it matter so much that a Kennedy is involved?”
But as both Black and Lasch made clear last week, the Kennedy factor mattered very much indeed. In her closing argument, Lasch remind-
ed the jury that “no one is above the law— there is no aristocracy, no class above the law.” And only a day earlier, Lasch had punctuated a lacklustre cross-examination of the 31-year-old defendant with the withering observation: “You know you can always count on your
family, don’t you, Mr. Smith?” He replied: “If you think my family is lying to protect me, you’re dead wrong.” But Lasch’s sarcasm may have sprung from an experience that had little to do with the Smith case. In 1984, she had watched a senior colleague endure a judge’s reprimand for doing “what the Kennedys want you to do” in investigating the death of one of Smith’s cousins, David Kennedy. The troubled son of former attorney general Robert Kennedy, he had died from a drug overdose at a Palm Beach motel during another traditional Easter weekend at the family compound.
Lasch reportedly vowed not to be intimidated by the same massive family machine. For an estimated $1 million in legal fees, equivalent to Smith’s inheritance from his father’s death last year, that machine had already provided him with six high-profile lawyers, three private investigators and a public relations consultant. In addition, there was a parade of Kennedy relatives to take turns lending moral support from the courtroom benches. Last spring, Lasch began peppering Smith’s pretrial hearings with accusations of media manipulation. And during one motion to bar a longtime Kennedy attorney from the case, she brandished a book chronicling his role in the alleged coverup of the incident that had snuffed out Edward Kennedy’s presidential hopes: the senator’s 10-hour delay in reporting his 1969 car accident on a bridge on Massachusetts’ Chappaquiddick Island, after which his brother’s former campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. After last week’s trial, Black accused Lasch of trying to punish the whole Kennedy
family in her case against Smith. “They put Will on trial,” he said, “but they really wanted to prosecute Ted.”
For a time, it appeared that Lasch might be succeeding. As the allegations against Smith raised questions about Kennedy’s own behavior, the spectre of Chappaquiddick resurfaced. Once more, all the elements of another starcrossed family melodrama seemed to be in place: wine, women and appetites so lusty that Kennedy had wakened his nephew and son Patrick, 24, at 2 a.m to go drinking at Au Bar, the Palm Beach nightclub where Smith’s fateful meeting with the alleged victim took place. Once again, there were sinister insinuations of a political vendetta against the Kennedys, this time by the alleged victim’s multimillionaire stepfather—and a coverup: Lasch’s office opened an investigation into a possible obstruction of justice.
The controversy came in the wake of a damaging media account chronicling Kennedy’s randy misadventures in a Capitol Hill restaurant. It depicted a bloated hedonist whose personal life was on a collision course with his public stature as the Senate’s liberal standard-bearer. And in his Massachusetts stronghold, his popularity ratings suddenly plummeted, inspiring Republicans to talk of mounting a serious challenge against him in 1994. But Kennedy’s lowest point arrived in October. After years of championing women’s rights, he was forced by his own tattered romantic reputation to sit silent during the Senate’s inquiry into sexual-harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas—prompting syndicated humorist Dave Barry to describe him as “the first senator to sit through three days of hearings with a bag over his head.”
That month, with a week to go before jury selection in Smith’s trial, Kennedy used the backdrop of the Harvard political institute named for John F. Kennedy to deliver an awkward acknowledgment of the “shortcomings, the faults in the conduct of my private life.” He added: “I realize that I alone am responsible.” By the time Lasch called him to testify, he had dieted away 25 lb. and cut back on his drinking. And some supporters, including former Kennedy White House spokesman Frank Mankiewicz, predicted that Smith’s acquittal would “certainly halt—and maybe stop dead in its tracks—the pack psychology that the Kennedy era is over.”
In fact, it is unlikely that Americans will so abruptly relinquish their romance with a family that has provided so much vicarious emotion and glamor. But as Chicago historian Garry Wills pointed out in The Kennedy Imprisonment, and as both Smith and his alleged victim may agree as they struggle to banish the clouds that linger over their reputations in the coming months, that romance may have taken its heaviest toll on those shackled inside the fishbowl of the gilded fairy tale. There, happilyever-afters have proved to be in consistently short supply.
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