William Kennedy Smith Trial: 1991

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William Kennedy Smith Trial: 1991

Defendant: William Kennedy Smith
Crime Charged: Rape
Chief Defense Lawyers: Roy E. Black, Mark Schnapp, and Mark Seiden
Chief Prosecutors: Moira K. Lasch and Ellen Roberts
Judge: Mary E. Lupo
Place: West Palm Beach, Florida
Dates of Trial: December 2-11, 1991
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The Kennedy family name and the concomitant glare of global media attention made this nothing less than the most heavily scrutinized rape trial in history.

Achance encounter at a Palm Beach, Florida, nightspot between William Kennedy Smith and Patricia Bowman led to the couple returning to the Kennedy compound overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. From the house they walked down to the beach. What happened next would become the subject of worldwide headlines. According to Bowman, Smith raped her. Smith maintained that everything which occurred had been with Bowman's consent. The state, satisfied that Smith had a case to answer, filed rape charges against him.

When she rose to speak to a jury of four women and two men on December 2, 1991, prosecutor Moira Lasch already had lost an important battle. Judge Mary Lupo had earlier denied the prosecution's request to admit the testimony of three other women who claimed that Smith had assaulted them between 1983 and 1988 on grounds that it did not demonstrate the discernible pattern of behavior required by Florida law for introduction. This meant that Lasch had to pin virtually her entire case on the word of the accuser.

First, though, Anne Mercer, a friend of Bowman's, who had also been at the Kennedy house on the night in question, told the court that Bowman was "literally shaking and she looked messed up she said she had been raped." When Mercer had confronted Smith to ask him how he could have acted as he did, his response, she said, was simply to shrug his shoulders.

Tabloid Interview Nets $40,000

In a blistering cross-examination, defense counsel Roy Black knocked gaping holes in Mercer's testimony. He forced a retreat from her earlier assertion to police that Bowman had been raped twice, and that on one of these occasions Smith's uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, had watched. Black also got Mercer to admit that she had failed to inform the authorities of details she subsequently revealed for the tabloid TV program "A Current Affair."

Gasps filled the courtroom when Mercer confessed that she had been paid $40,000 for her story. By implication, Black suggested that Mercer's tale had been heavily embellished for monetary gain. It was a stigma that the witness never fully shrugged off. Black drove home his advantage by playing Mercer a taped account she had made earlier for the police that contained several statements that disagreed with the version she had provided the court.

In a surprise move, prosecutor Lasch produced the accuser early in the trial. To protect her identity, TV cameras obscured Bowman's face with a blue dot. (Following the trial Bowman elected to abandon her anonymity for a TV interview.) Referring to the defendant first as "Mr. Smith," and later as "that man," Bowman described the alleged assault, saying, "I thought he was going to kill me."

When Black chided Bowman for several lapses of memory, she insisted, "The only thing I can remember about that week is Mr. Smith raped me."

Black wasn't impressed. "I know you've been prepared to say that."

Bowman snapped back. "I have not been prepared to say anything."

Throughout his cross-examination Black walked a fine line; how best to undermine the accuser's credibility without wishing to appear bullying or insensitive. On those occasions when his questioning provoked a tearful response, Black immediately backed off and suggested a recess. Under his deft probing, however, Bowman did acknowledge a history of problems with men, resulting, she said, from "having one-night stands."

On rebuttal, Lasch asked Bowman whether she had any ulterior motives for bringing the charge. Bowman replied, "What he did to me was wrong. I have a child and it's not right and I don't want to live the rest of my life in fear of that man. And I don't want to be responsible for him doing it to someone else."

This final comment brought Black to his feet, objecting. Judge Lupo ordered the remark stricken from the record, calling it "inappropriate."

Curiously, the prosecution called Smith's uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy, as its witness. If, as some observers believed, Lasch was attempting to visit some of the senator's perceived foibles upon his nephew, then she sorely miscalculated. For some 40 minutes Senator Kennedy managed to re-create Camelot in a Palm Beach courthouse as he evoked memories of the family's numerous tragedies. Nothing he said was remotely helpful to Lasch's case. Not for the first time the prosecution's strategy showed signs of being ill-conceived and poorly executed.

Much of the defense was built around forensic testimony. Charles M. Sieger, an architect, said that, given the house's construction, had Bowman screamed as she claimed, the sounds would have been clearly audible indoors, yet no resident admitted to hearing anything.

Rather less successful was Professor Jay Siegel's testimony. He stated that sand found in Bowman's underwear most likely came from the beach, which tallied with Smith's version of events, and not the lawn, where Bowman claimed she had been raped. Lasch bored in. "Wouldn't you agree that a 6-foot-2, 200-pound man running up a beach is going to churn up some sand?" Siegel agreed. Lasch went on: "And if the defendant was wet some of that [sand] could stick to his body, couldn't it?" Besides having to concede this possibility, Siegel also was forced to admit that the lawn itself actually contained a significant amount of sand, thus rendering his testimony virtually useless.

Defendant Remains Cool

It took William Kennedy Smith just 29 minutes to tell his side of the story. Black concluded the brief account by asking if he had "at any time" raped his accuser. "No, I did not," Smith replied firmly.

Lasch went on the attack. "What are you saying, that she raped you, Mr. Smith?" Later, in reference to an alleged second sexual encounter, she leered, "What are you, some kind of sex machine?"

Smith weathered the assault coolly. He reiterated his story that the evening had turned ugly when he had inadvertently called the accuser "Kathy." She "sort of snapped she got very upset." Later, he said, Bowman apologized as she was leaving the compound, "I am sorry I got upset. I had a wonderful night. You're a terrific guy." Minutes later, however, she was back, crying and claiming that he had raped her, repeatedly calling him "Michael."

Frustrated by Smith's matter-of-fact responses, Lasch adopted a different tack, claiming the Kennedy family was trying to engineer a cover-up. Smith would have tack, claimingnone of it. the"If Kennedyyou're implying that my family is lying to protect me, dead wrong." Someone else less than impressed with this line of questioning was Judge Lupo. "If you ask one more question along these lines," she told Lasch, you will not get away with it. Failure to abide by this instruction will result in legal action." It was a humiliating rebuke for the prosecutor, coming as it did with Judge Lupo's oblique reference to the fact that she suspected Lasch might be angling for a deliberate mistrial, thus salvaging her case for another day.

In closing, Black said, "they want us to believe that this young man goes up there and rapes a screaming young woman under the open windows not only of his mother, but his sister, two prosecutors from New York, and the father of one of them who is a former special agent for the FBI!" Making no attempt to apologize for his client's self-confessed dishonorable behavior on the night concerned, Black still appealed to the jury to exhibit "general, human common sense."

Lasch could dwell on only inconsistencies. Referring to Bowman, "She didn't know this man. She didn't even have an opportunity to know him. This woman has had a child. She's a high-risk pregnancy. If she was going to have consensual sex on March 30, 1991, she would use birth control."

On December 11, 1991, the case went to the jury. After deliberating for just 79 minutes they returned with a verdict of not guilty.

Millions of viewers watched this drama played out on their television screens. For most it was their first glimpse of the extraordinary problems that attend "date rape" cases. By its very nature this kind of rape will always remain a question of "he said, she said." In such circumstances courtroom demeanor invariably decides the day.

Two years after the verdict, William Kennedy Smith had another brush with the law. He was arrested and charged with assault after he hit a bouncer at a bar in Arlington, Virginia. Smith pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Since completing his sentence, Smith has returned to a relatively quiet life of practicing medicine and heading an organization he started, Physicians Against Land Mines.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Dunne, Dominick. "The Verdict." lanity Fair (March 1992): 21 0ff.

Fields, Suzanne. "Sexual Revolution Bares Its Flaws." Insight (January 6, 1992): 17ff.

McDonald, Marci. "Beyond The Trial." Maclean's (December 23, 1991): 16ff.

Stein, Harry. "It Happened One Night." Playboy (April 1992): 78ff.

Taylor, John. "A Theory Of The Case." New York (January 6, 1992): 34ff.