By People Staff
December 30, 1991 12:00 PM

To many observers, the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith raised questions that went far beyond the matter of his guilt or innocence. As gripping as it was on its own terms, the drama at the Palm Beach County courthouse focused attention on hot-button issues like “date rape” and an alleged victim’s right to privacy. Kennedy watchers, of course, regarded the trial as one more installment in the saga of the star-crossed clan whose every foible makes the tabloids. In many ways, it seemed that Americans watching the drama on TV were passing judgment not only on William, but on the family that lives with the memory of Mary Jo Kopechne as well as that of Camelot.

As it happened, the family’s vices and virtues were revealed in sharp relief after William, 31, was charged with sexual battery. For Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose party-animal image has become a liability, his nephew’s predicament made public his own less-than-model behavior that night. Still, he and other family members showed the flag at the Palm Beach County courthouse. “The family’s been drifting apart over the last decade, but this proved [their] strength,” says a source close to the Kennedys. “They all pulled together.”

From the beginning, Smith mounted the sort of public defense unavailable to any less privileged rape suspect. Before the trial, the defendant posed for photo ops romping with his new Labrador retriever and speaking to schoolchildren. After his accuser’s strong testimony, reporters gathered to hear Smith brand her allegations a “damnable lie.” The medical school graduate, who had been prepped by a lawyer who put him through hours of mock cross-examination, performed impressively when he finally took the stand. Frequently looking toward the jury, he assured prosecutor Moira Lasch repeatedly, “All I can tell you is the truth.” The key to the trial, perhaps, was Judge Mary Lupo’s decision to bar testimony from three other women who claimed that Smith had sexually assaulted them. Even if the trial’s outcome hadn’t been affected, Smith’s reputation might well have been permanently blackened.

Smith’s close friend Mark Mirkin, who is a lawyer, maintained that Smith was happy to have his day in court. The pressure, he said, “never wore [him] down. In fact, it’s probably pumped him up. He has become a very skilled public speaker. Right now I think he could move to New Hampshire and probably win [the presidential primary].”

Which may be more than Uncle Ted could do. As the ringleader in the Good Friday visit to Au Bar, he underscored his reputation as a drinker with a weakness for pretty, young women. In the months since, he seems to have realized that his career may be at stake. During the hearings in which Anita Hill leveled her sexual harassment charges against Clarence Thomas, he was conspicuously silent; in October he told the press, “I recognize my own shortcomings, the faults in the conduct of my private life.” Says Democratic political analyst Robert Beckel: “I think this wake-up call may be the last one. There’s not much margin left for him.”

Like his Uncle Ted, William Smith faces an uncertain future. At a family prayer session after the verdict, he said he wished the best for his accuser and expressed the hope that she would get on with her life. In January his own life will assume a sort of normality when he reports to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he is set to begin a residency in internal medicine. There, he could have a hard row to hoe: Nineteen other first-year residents have been in the same program since June, and “any absence puts more of the work on them,” says Carolyn Tinker, the medical school’s director of public affairs. “If one person is missing, the rest of the doctors have to fill in.”

Although Smith has said that he is “really, really happy” to have beaten the charges, he has not emerged unscathed. By his own account, his inheritance from his father, Stephen Smith, who died in 1990, has gone toward his defense, and he plans to borrow money to finish paying off an estimated $1 million in legal bills. Moreover, he has lost the relative anonymity that he enjoyed for the first 30 years of his life. Once an obscure Kennedy cousin, William Smith is now a man whose deeds—good and bad—will never again escape public notice.