Jury Finds Smith Not Guilty of Rape |
By Mary Jordan
As the verdict was announced in a tense, hushed courtroom after 10 days of testimony, Smith leapt from his chair and embraced Roy E. Black, his lead attorney.
Four of the six jurors, including the foreman, wept openly as they glanced across the courtroom at Smith, smiling broadly at relatives and friends seated behind him.
Throughout the day of rebuttal testimony and closing arguments, Smith, 31, looked haggard and pensive. But he brightened like a light bulb as the court clerk twice intoned "not guilty," freeing him from the felony sexual battery and misdemeanor battery charges lodged against him last May.
The verdict was returned so quickly that a spokeswoman for Smith said he and family members had just returned to the Kennedy compound here "and changed out of their court clothes" to await the verdict when the telephone rang.
"Suddenly, we got the court call, and there was a frenzy of activity," said Barbara Gamarekian, the spokeswoman. The family and attorneys, she said, "went flying out of the house."
At the defense table, Black wiped his eyes after the long, expensive and emotional legal battle had ended. A few feet away, prosecutor Moira K. Lasch looked somberly at her yellow legal pad, scribbling notes for several minutes after the verdict was read.
"Willie! Willie! Willie!" hundreds of people chanted as Smith emerged from the courthouse to clamorous applause.
Before ducking into the family's wood-paneled station wagon, Smith walked to a cluster of microphones and choked backed tears. "I have an enormous debt to the system and to God, and I have a terrific faith in both of them," he said. "I'm just really, really happy."
"My life was in their hands," he said of the jurors. "I am so grateful."
Six blocks away at his office, David Roth, attorney for the woman who brought the charges against Smith after their early-morning encounter at the Kennedy estate March 30, told reporters: "The jury has spoken. However, 'not guilty' does not equate to innocent."
Roth read a statement from the woman saying, "All I have endured is worth it if I made it easier for one woman to make what for me was the only choice I could."
The woman, 30, who lives in nearby Jupiter, Fla., added that, "despite the enormous price I have endured, I do not for one moment regret the course of action I have pursued."
Criminal law experts said the prosecution faced an uphill battle after the first day of testimony Dec. 2 when Judge Mary E. Lupo decided -- correctly, they agreed -- to exclude sworn testimony by three other women who said Smith assaulted them in the 1980s.
But the experts faulted the prosecution for strategic blunders that squandered any opportunity to win a conviction, and they credited the defense for presenting a well-prepared case that created reasonable doubt.
Roth refused to speculate on whether he believed that the prosecution could have won a conviction had Lupo not barred the women's testimony, which many experts said would have been the strongest part of the state's case.
None of the women reported the alleged incidents to police, but Lasch had argued that they were so "strikingly similar" to the charges being tried that they should have been admissible. Under Florida law, past wrongdoings are admissible evidence if they show the defendant's distinctive manner or "signature."
"This case did not go well for the state," said Richard Gerstein, former president of the National District Attorneys Association and a Miami criminal defense attorney. He said that date-rape cases are perhaps the most difficult to prosecute and noted that Smith appeared credible and convincing as a witness Tuesday and was aided by a superb defense team that even Lupo referred to today as "legal geniuses."
Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor, said, "The defense won with the Smith testimony. Ninety-five percent of the defense was Smith, and 50 percent of that was his tone of voice, his body language, his demeanor. . . . His defense must have given him a crash course in courtroom behavior."
The nationally televised trial, which riveted millions of viewers from coast to coast and attracted reporters from around the world, was much discussed and maligned by advocates of victims' rights.
"I think it was very painful to women who have been victims to watch," said Susan Estrich, a law professor at the University of Southern California and author of "Real Rape," a book about an assault against her. "It was very painful for me to watch."
Cassandra Thomas, head of the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault and director of the Rape Crisis Center at the Houston Area Women's Center, said the trial was "pretty typical of most rape cases -- the same myths, the same disbelief that the victim was really assaulted."
"A lot of women are asking, why do we put ourselves through this? What do we get from this?" said Thomas, who added that the highly publicized trial has angered many women to whom she has spoken.
Lasch, who had been criticized for a lackluster performance throughout the trial, today delivered such an emotional closing argument that tears welled in her eyes. In her 70-minute summation, she told the jury, "What you heard during the course of this trial was not an act of love, not an act of sex. It was an act of violence."
Alluding to Smith's famous family, she said the "aristocracy" was not above the law. She dwelt on witnesses' discrepancies about times of events and again cited statements of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his son, Patrick Kennedy, saying that it appeared that they and Smith had conspired to corroborate each other's stories. Her final words to the jury were: "She said, 'No,' and he didn't care."
Smith had accompanied Sen. Kennedy, his uncle, and Patrick, his cousin, to a local nightclub where Smith met his accuser. Smith and the woman drove to the Kennedy estate. She charged that he raped her in the backyard, but Smith testified that the two had consensual sex there.
Lasch, who had been dubbed "Ice Lady" here, was anything but that today. As she announced that the state had rested case 91-5482, she dabbed her eyes with a tissue and embraced her husband, clearly relieved at the close of a case that has consumed her life for more than eight months.
Black, 43, her chief adversary as leader of a defense team of four attorneys, left the courtoom, saying, "I feel terrific."
As Black, Smith and Smith's family and friends were escorted by uniformed deputy sheriffs along a hallway and into a room nearby, one member of the group yelled, "We'll go right to the house." Another jubilantly called out: "The party has started."
Smith's mother, Jean Kennedy Smith, publicly silent and expressionless throughout the trial, finally smiled at the verdict. During closing arguments, she sat on the same narrow bench as the accuser's mother.
"I feel wonderful, I'm relieved, I feel great," Smith said as she left the courtroom where her son has spent most of the last five weeks, including almost three weeks as the jury was culled from a list of more than 450 prospective jurors.
Gamarekian said Smith; his mother; his cousin, Timothy Shriver; and a family friend, Charles J. O'Byrne, a Jesuit seminarian, had attended mass before coming to the courthouse this morning.
Throughout his closing arguments, Black emphasized that, to convict Smith, jurors legally were required to believe that he was guilty "beyond all reasonable doubt."
More than a dozen times, Black said there was "no evidence" to support the woman's claim. If the alleged victim, whom Smith testified was a "real nut," had been raped, "she would run over hot coals to get away," Black said. Instead, he noted, several witnesses saw her return to the Kennedy house.
He dismissed the woman's bruises as injuries sustained elsewhere and said there was no "X-ray" proof of a bruised right rib.
"Her decision was 'yes,' " Black said. Describing her encounter with Smith, he added, "This is right out of romance novel." His voice rising, Black told the four women and two men on the jury that Smith would not "have raped a screaming woman under the window of his mother, his sister" and others of about a dozen people inside the estate.
"Once she gets the police involved," Black said, attempting to explain why the woman launched the eight-month ordeal, "there was no turning back. This freight train was on its way."
Roth said tonight that his client, who has turned down offers of more than $500,000 for the movie rights to her story, intends to reject future such offers. She intends, he said, to protect whatever privacy she has left.