Smith Trial Unfolds Pain of Rape Cases

By Linda Feldmann, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 1, 1991 | Go to article overview
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Smith Trial Unfolds Pain of Rape Cases


Linda Feldmann, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


LIKE the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill imbroglio two months ago, the William Kennedy Smith rape trial has once again focused America's attention on a highly charged sexual issue - this time, acquaintance or date rape.

And like the duel in October, when the Supreme Court nominee faced sexual harassment charges from a former subordinate, the Smith case may well boil down to his word versus hers.

But the case is more than just a high-profile rape trial hungrily devoured by purveyors and consumers of tabloid TV. It is the latest chapter in the star-crossed saga of the Kennedys. It also touches on the political future of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy. (See related story.)

In a crucial way, however, the trial has been typical. When defense lawyer Roy Black cross-examined the alleged victim last Thursday, he led her through an excruciatingly explicit series of questions about what she claims Mr. Smith did to her at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Fla., last Easter weekend.

The live cable-casting of the proceedings on both CNN and Court TV, producing a boost in ratings, has given women a graphic example of what they would face in similar circumstances. And, rape experts predict, it is likely to make women even more reluctant than they already are to report date rape and to press charges - particularly if Smith is acquitted.

"After a woman's been raped, she's going to think, 'Who needs to go through more hell? says Pauline Bart, a sociology professor and rape specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Professor Bart reports that Chicago's rape-prosecution unit has seen a decline in women reporting acquaintance rape since the Smith story broke last spring. Almost no cases are coming in, she says.

Studies have shown that only 5 percent to 10 percent of acquaintance-rape cases are reported. And of those, only a small percentage go to trial, because they are so tough to prosecute.

"Prosecutors live on their conviction rate," and thus they're not going to pursue cases that have only a remote chance of conviction, says Morrison Torrey, a law professor at DePaul University in Illinois.

Since the advent of "rape shield laws which bar discussion of the plaintiff's sexual history at a rape trial, unless it regards sex with the defendant - in most states over the last 15 to 20 years, the situation has improved "only marginally" in rape prosecution, says Professor Torrey.

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