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. …