Rape of the system?


William Kennedy Smith is not exactly a household name, but the allegation that a member of the country's most well-known family raped a Florida woman last Easter has certainly generated an unusual amount of publicity.

The latest twist in the case came earlier this week when prosecutors filed detailed statements from three women -- one of whom claimed that Smith raped her in 1988 and two others who say he sexually attacked them. Prosecutors say they will use the women's testimony to impeach Smith's credibility if he takes the witness stand. There is still a question of whether Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Mary Lupo will allow the new allegations into evidence. Nevertheless, prosecutors obviously hoped the charges alone would have an impact or they would have filed the women's statements in sealed papers out of the public eye.

Clearly, this is an attempt to focus attention on Smith's credibility and to put substantial pressure on the defense. And it seems to be working. The media are buzzing; one sleazy tabloid even went so far as to run a totally irresponsible and inflammatory headline: "Willie raped before."

This is not the first time the Smith case has stirred national attention. Soon after the Florida woman filed rape charges, the New York Times ran a highly questionable profile of the alleged victim which cast doubt on her moral conduct and credibility.

Lawyers on both sides of the case have decried using the media to sway public opinion. Yet neither side shrinks from doing it, and too often some less scrupulous members of the media become willing handmaidens. Still, the case of Oliver North suggests that pre-trial publicity, however sensational, does not rule out the possibility of a fair trial. Not all potential jurors, after all, watch "Good Morning America," or even read the newspapers. If North, whose name and face appeared on television and in newspapers day after day, could get a fair hearing, we remain confident that an unbiased jury can be selected that will provide a fair trial for William Kennedy Smith.

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