William Kennedy Smith Is Accused of Rape Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A nephew of U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert F. and Ted Kennedy, William Kennedy Smith was accused of raping a woman he had met at a bar in Palm Beach, Florida. After a sensational criminal trial, Smith was acquitted of the charge. The case led to debate over the anonymity given to Patricia Bowman by news stations televising the trial and whether that anonymity, in general, perpetuates the idea that being raped is shameful.

Summary of Event

William Kennedy Smith, part of a prominent family in American politics, joined a long line of other Kennedy men involved in scandals including promiscuity, extramarital affairs, and even death by drowning. In March, 1991, Smith was accused of raping Patricia Bowman in Palm Beach, Florida, at the nearby Kennedy family compound. After a heavily publicized and sensational trial, he was acquitted of the charge. [kw]Smith Is Accused of Rape, William Kennedy (Mar. 30, 1991) [kw]Rape, William Kennedy Smith Is Accused of (Mar. 30, 1991) Bowman, Patricia Smith, William Kennedy Rape;and William Kennedy Smith[Smith] Bowman, Patricia Smith, William Kennedy Rape;and William Kennedy Smith[Smith] [g]United States;Mar. 30, 1991: William Kennedy Smith Is Accused of Rape[02500] [c]Law and the courts;Mar. 30, 1991: William Kennedy Smith Is Accused of Rape[02500] [c]Publishing and journalism;Mar. 30, 1991: William Kennedy Smith Is Accused of Rape[02500] [c]Sex crimes;Mar. 30, 1991: William Kennedy Smith Is Accused of Rape[02500] [c]Women’s issues;Mar. 30, 1991: William Kennedy Smith Is Accused of Rape[02500] Cassone, Michelle

William Kennedy Smith leaves court after his arraignment on May 31, 1991. He pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual battery.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Over Easter weekend, the thirty-year-old Smith was in Palm Beach with his uncle, U.S. senator Ted Kennedy, Kennedy, Edward M. [p]Kennedy, Edward M.;and William Kennedy Smith[Smith] and his cousin, Patrick Kennedy Kennedy, Patrick (Ted’s son). On the evening of March 30, the three went to the local bar, Au Bar, where Smith met twenty-nine year old Patricia Bowman, a single mother. Patrick began talking with another woman, Michelle Cassone. After consuming drinks, the two cousins and Bowman and Cassone left the bar for the nearby oceanfront beach house owned by the Kennedy family.

At the Kennedy property, Patrick and Cassone drank wine and talked while Smith and Bowman walked along the beach. Bowman later told authorities that Smith took off his clothes and ran into the water, upsetting Bowman, who headed back to the house. As she began walking, Smith got out of the water and returned to the beach. Bowman said that Smith tackled her to the sand, called her a “bitch,” and raped her. Bowman insisted that she tried to fight off Smith’s attack and that she screamed “no.” She told police that despite her pleas, Smith raped her.

After the incident on the beach, Bowman placed a call from the Kennedy compound to a friend, Anne Mercer, whom she asked to pick her up. Bowman and Mercer then drove to the Palm Beach police station, where Bowman reported the rape. Bowman was then taken to Humana Hospital for treatment. Police later indicated that they were “99 percent” certain that the evidence obtained at the hospital that night supported Bowman’s claim of rape. She had bruises on her midsection that were consistent with a forceful attack. Furthermore, Bowman passed two separate polygraph tests. Based on Bowman’s claim, the hospital report, and polygraph results, Smith was charged with second-degree sexual battery and misdemeanor battery.

The criminal trial began later that year, and both Bowman and Smith testified before a jury of four women and two men. Testimony began on December 2, and the trial was nationally televised. Judge Mary E. Lupo heard the case. Bowman testified that she and Smith had been walking on the beach, that Smith had been forceful, and that he had called her “bitch” when she protested his sexual advances. She said that Smith then raped her, even though she clearly told him no and told him to stop. Bowman also testified that after she told him he had raped her, his response was that no one would believe she was raped while at the Kennedy home, let alone that she was at the home in the first place. Thinking ahead about the consequences of her accusations, Bowman took a family urn and notepad from the mansion as evidence that she was at the Kennedy estate. The defense attorneys later tried to use this against Bowman, portraying her as a common criminal who could not be trusted.

Prosecutors tried to present testimony from three women who said they were assaulted by Smith—one was assaulted in 1983, a second in 1988, and a third in 1991, the same year Smith allegedly raped Bowman. These attacks, however, had not been reported to the police. Furthermore, Florida law prohibits revealing a defendant’s criminal history in a sex-related case as evidence in another case if the modus operandi in that prior case differed from the alleged crime in question. The defense, therefore, filed a motion to prevent the women’s testimony. The court ruled that the prosecution in the Smith-Bowman trial failed to show how the previous three alleged attacks were relevant to the current case.

Smith recounted his version of the incident to the judge and jury, but it was a version very different from that of Bowman. The defense presented its case as consensual sex: Smith acknowledged that the couple engaged in sexual intercourse but he insisted that it was consensual. He testified that after they had sex, Bowman began to shake and cry. He did not dispute Bowman’s testimony that she told Smith on the beach that he had just raped her. Smith said that during their rendezvous on the beach, he called Bowman by the wrong first name—Cathy, his former girlfriend’s name. (Interestingly, during the trial, Bowman had mistakenly referred to Smith as Michael.) Smith said that his mistake infuriated Bowman. At this point, he said, she told him to get off of her and then slapped him. Smith contended that this slip of the tongue, calling Bowman by the name Cathy, led to Bowman’s accusation of rape against Smith.

Camera operators, photographers, and reporters gather outside the Palm Beach County courthouse during William Kennedy Smith’s trial for sexual battery in December, 1991.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The jury agreed with the defense and believed Smith’s version of what happened March 30. On December 23, after eighty minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.


Had Smith’s family not been famous, it is unlikely the media would have paid close attention to the case. However, it was the manner in which the trial was covered by the media that defines the scandal’s impact and legacy. What led to heightened intrigue with this case was the anonymity given to Bowman by news stations. Bowman was never fully seen on television during the trial. The image of her face was concealed with a blurred, blue or grayish dot on the screen. The dot—and its effect on not only the case but also the issue of keeping alleged victims anonymous in rape cases—remains part of the trial’s legacy.

Commentators questioned whether keeping Bowman anonymous to viewers really helped her in the public eye or made her into an object for sensational reportage. Some critics of media coverage of rape cases and trials argue that keeping rape victims—or alleged victims—anonymous adds a veil of shame to their victimization, that to keep that person’s identity secret reinforces the idea that a raped woman (or man) is a shameful woman (or man). After the trial, however, Bowman appeared on ABC’s Prime Time Live (television) Prime Time Live with Diane Sawyer so that she could speak about her experience without concealing her identity. She said she wanted to help other rape victims feel less afraid when confronting their attackers.

Rape cases are often difficult for prosecutors. An accuser’s credibility and sexual history are often weighed more heavily than any material evidence presented at trial. Rape cases are difficult to prosecute also because the case most often depends on differing versions of the same event. Even when solid rape-kit evidence points to an alleged perpetrator, the testimony of the alleged victim and the alleged rapist often overrides this evidence. This he said-she said aspect to rape cases clearly played a part in the outcome of Smith’s trial: the jury believed Smith but not Bowman. Smith’s resources and his family’s notoriety may have influenced the jury’s verdict as well. Bowman, Patricia Smith, William Kennedy Rape;and William Kennedy Smith[Smith]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chancer, Lynn S. High-profile Crimes: When Legal Cases Become Social Causes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. An account of the “polarizing” criminal cases of the 1980’s and 1990’s, including the Kennedy Smith trial. Examines “how these cases became conflated with larger social causes on a collective level” as well as “how this phenomenon has affected the law, the media, and social movements.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leamer, Laurence. Sons of Camelot: The Fate of an American Dynasty. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Discusses the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, placing it in the context of numerous scandals and hardships faced by the Kennedy clan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matlock, Jann. “Scandals of Naming: The Blue Blob, Identity, and Gender in the William Kennedy Smith Case.” In Media Spectacles, edited by Marjorie Garber, Jann Matlock, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz. New York: Routledge, 1993. Discusses the media portrayal of Patricia Bowman in William Kennedy Smith’s criminal trial. Examines the effects of gender and class assumptions on the media’s coverage of the trial. Focuses mainly on Bowman’s anonymity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matoesian, Gregory M. Law and the Language of Identity: Discourse in the William Kennedy Smith Rape Trial. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Examines the use of targeted language by the defense and prosecution in rape trials. Ties linguistics to law, gender, sexual identity, and power.

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Categories: History