Joe Treen
December 23, 1991 12:00 PM

EVERYONE THOUGHT IT WOULD TAKE A day. Perhaps two. But less than 90 minutes after getting the case, the jury in the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith was back in court with a verdict: not guilty. Yet though this swift judgment had settled the legal question, it could not make America forget the powerful, disturbing image of the woman who brought the charges. She was center-stage at what many saw as the hard-core sequel to the Clarence Thomas—Anita Hill confrontation. She was part of a national seminar on date rape that gripped a vast television audience. What was believed or wasn’t believed became the subject of countless debates at watercoolers and dinner tables across the country. During her two days of testimony, she was a moving and persuasive witness. That the four women and two men on the jury voted so quickly to acquit her alleged attacker made one thing clear above all else: the difficulty of proving certain kinds of rape beyond a reasonable doubt.

Watching her testify, though, was frustrating. Her hair was visible, thick and brown and cut in a pageboy. You could see her hands, her left wiping away her tears, her right pressed over her heart—just as it had been, she said, when Smith allegedly raped her. And she was tastefully, conservatively dressed: a charcoal-gray suit and pearls the first day, gold necklace and pin the second. But only those in court could see anything more. All that millions watching elsewhere got to see was a fuzzy blue dot or a computerized blur on their TV screens.

Without seeing the range of emotions play across her face, viewers had difficulty making judgments about her personality and honesty. Her tone of voice was there, of course. So were her words. But that was hardly enough to satisfy anyone, and neither prosecutor Moira Lasch nor defense attorney Roy Black made it any easier. As they presented their conflicting versions of what happened at the Kennedys’ Palm Beach estate in the wee hours of March 30, they conjured up for the jury two conflicting versions of the alleged victim. At times it seemed as if there should have been two blobs on the TV screen to mask her—one white, concealing vulnerability; the other black, masking vindictiveness.

As presented by the prosecution, she was a doting mother and caring daughter. She occupied her time working as a volunteer at St. Mary’s Hospital in West Palm Beach, helping the parents of premature babies cope with their problems. It is a subject she knows well: Her own daughter, now 2 years old, was born prematurely. (A twin died in miscarriage.) “My daughter requires constant care,” she testified. “She’s on a heart monitor.”

According to this sympathetic portrait, the alleged victim, 30, was a single mother who spent most of her life alone with her daughter. She took her little girl to a play group three mornings a week. One night each week, her own mother took care of the child so that the young woman could attend night classes at Palm Beach Atlantic College—and get some sleep. “My daughter gets me up so early,” she explained. “I’m always tired.”

When this victim was 14, her parents were divorced. That same year she was in an auto accident that broke three vertebrae in her neck. As a result, she had to have a cervical fusion that has left her anxious about her medical condition ever since. Years later, she found herself pregnant by a man she said did not want to get married or bear the responsibility of fatherhood. Even so, she was considerate of him, not telling him of her pregnancy until after he underwent scheduled surgery. “He had enough on his mind,” she testified.

But things haven’t been all bad for Will Smith’s accuser. Ten years ago her mother was remarried, to a wealthy industrialist who has been more than generous in supporting the alleged victim. He bought her a $135,000 home in nearby Jupiter and set up a trust fund so that she and her daughter would have a modest income. “I don’t like to ask my father for extra money,” she testified. “Yes, I live on a budget, and it has gotten low after spending thousands on [my daughter’s] medical bills.” Despite financial worries, money was not her motive in bringing rape charges against Smith. She said she turned down offers as high as $500,000 for film rights to her story, opting for privacy instead. “Everyone in the world knows what is happening to me,” she cried out at one point from the witness stand. “How am I going to stop my daughter from hearing about it? This has been a nightmare for me.”

Her nightmare started, she says, as a simple night out, a break from the 24-hour care she had been giving her daughter. The victim, as presented by Moira Lasch, was too trusting. She met “a likable man,” she said, drove him back to his home, kissed him a few times and walked on the beach with him. She felt safe, she testified, since “he was taking me to the Kennedy home…. There was a Senator there. I didn’t feel I was in any danger.”

And then, she said, he suddenly took off his clothes and jumped into the ocean. She felt that was “inappropriate behavior” and started to leave. That was when he tackled her and threw her to the ground, she said. “I was yelling ‘No!’ and then ‘Stop!’ ” she testified. “And I tried to arch my back to get him off me, and he slammed me back on the ground—and then he pushed my dress up and raped me. I thought he was going to kill me.” She had no doubts about what happened. At one emotional moment in the trial, she pointed at Black and cried, “Your client raped me!”

The portrait of the alleged victim as painted by the defense couldn’t have been more dissimilar. In this version, the young woman was something of a party girl who raced around Palm Beach in a black, two-seat RX-7 Mazda. She was a ne’er-do-well without a paying job who dated a bartender and wasted her trust fund on $60-a-bottle Veuve Clicquot champagne. One defense witness, businessman Gregory Cummings, who met her at Au Bar, even testified that she drank her champagne straight from the bottle.

The victim, according to the defense, was hardly a model of loyalty either. On the night in question, she broke a promise to share take-out food with a friend who had recently had a baby. She arrived at the woman’s home wearing a new Ann Taylor dress, patent-leather sling-back heels, Givenchy panty hose, a lacy black-and-blue bra and black Victoria’s Secret underpants. No take-out food for her; after a brief visit she was off to a restaurant and two bars, and instead of going home at closing time (her daughter was with her mother), she went back to the house of a man she had just met, William Kennedy Smith. As Smith, 31, saw it, he was “definitely being picked up.” She made out with him in her car, he testified, and then they had two sexual encounters, both consensual. The second time, on a grassy area just outside the Kennedy mansion, was her idea, Smith said, but when he mistakenly called her “Cathie” she stopped abruptly.

To the defense, the alleged victim had a convenient memory. She could recall with clarity that she had rigatoni a la vodka, Caesar salad and Chianti at an Italian restaurant that night. But she could not remember how or when her panty hose were removed—or how they were torn. And in five pretrial depositions, she never mentioned that she met bartender Tony Liott an hour or so before she met Smith. Indeed, according to New York Newsday, she answered, “I don’t recall” or “I don’t remember” 160 times.

As the defense saw it, the alleged victim behaved in a bizarre fashion. Smith testified that while they were sitting with their feet in the swimming pool at the Kennedy mansion, she twice called him “Michael” and asked for his ID card when he said his name was William. “At the time,” Smith said, “I didn’t think it was a big deal. I just thought she was a little kooky.”

After their second sexual encounter, Smith said, she became irrational and angry when he tried to get her to leave. She started “to shake and cry,” Smith said, and told him that “Michael raped me.” She insisted that his ID said his name was Michael. Then she got in her car, drove a few feet in the driveway, stopped, apologized, thanked him for the evening and told him he was “a terrific guy.”

Smith said that when he told her he did not know the phone number of the Kennedy estate, she again got angry and returned to the house a few minutes after leaving. Only the timely arrival of her friend Anne Mercer helped get the woman out of the house. Smith suggested that the woman had begun to remind him of the deranged Glenn Close in the movie Fatal Attraction. Since then, he said, she had become something worse. “How do you defend yourself from someone who says ‘rape’ over and over again?” he asked in court. “How can you defend yourself when all she will talk about is her child or her neck or her family?”

Many observers considered the alleged victim an effective witness. “She was brighter than I thought, after reading what the dirt-diggers hired by the Kennedys leaked about her,” said writer Dominick Dunne, who was in court when she testified. “I thought she’d be cheap. But she’s not. She’s rather nice. Not conventionally pretty…but she is pleasing to look at and riveting to hear.”

Her testimony was indeed powerful—but so was Smith’s. Both seemed believable on the stand. But the prosecution was frustrated by Black, one of Miami’s top defense attorneys, after the judge disallowed any mention of three other women who claim Smith previously attacked them. Black also scored points during his cross-examination. He played recordings of her pretrial testimony and asked her to explain the discrepancies. He made sure the jury saw and resaw her sexy undergarments. And he gleefully displayed the colorful Madonna T-shirt she was wearing when she first went to the police. It read I THINK I’M A SEXUAL THREAT.

Whenever Black asked for details on the rape itself, the alleged victim began to cry; her voice became that of a helpless little girl. Each time, Black asked if she wanted to take a break, and nearly always she replied, “No, I want to get this over with.” Now that it is over, she says, she has no regrets. “The verdict of not guilty does not prove innocence,” she stated afterward. “I praise the critical issues my decision to go forth with this has raised. I don’t regret the decision that I made, and I pray it was not in vain.”


LINDA MARX in West Palm Beach

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