A famous American family, an exotic setting along Florida's Gold Coast, a purported sex crime, a mysterious young woman get ready for the most unpredictable new soap opera of the season. It's the Kennedy Palm Beach Rape Case, and it'll be screening soon perhaps as early as Aug. 5 in your very own living room.
Courtroom Television Network (known as Court TV), a new round-the-clock cable network devoted to covering real-life courtroom action, is planning to broadcast the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith live from Florida's Palm Beach County Court. Those likely to offer testimony in front of the cameras include Smith's uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy; the alleged rape victim (whose name and face won't be revealed to the TV audience); and possibly Smith himself.
''We don't want to exploit or sensationalize this trial,'' says Steven Brill, Court TV's creator and CEO. ''But there is a lot of public interest in it. And it is an important case. There isn't a better illustration of the intricacies of burden of proof. There isn't a better example of presumption of innocence. It's an important trial for us to cover.'' And one whose through-the-roof ratings should put Court TV on the cable map.
Part C-SPAN, part Monday Night Football, Court TV hit the airwaves July 1, offering its 4.5 million subscribers gavel-to-gavel coverage of three or four different trials every day. As host Fred Graham (a former CBS News law correspondent) anchors from his desk and schmoozes with special guest attorneys (F. Lee Bailey has made appearances), the cameras zip from one courthouse to another for live trial updates. Among the cases covered in the first week: a 64-year-old man accused of murdering his stepmother-in-law in Fort Lauderdale 23 years ago and a former college basketball star on trial for rape in Cincinnati. The network has also presented taped segments of Marlon Brando's tearful testimony at his son's February sentencing hearing, and next fall hopes to broadcast the trial of the Los Angeles police officers who were videotaped beating a black motorist on March 3.
''But the Kennedy trial is our biggest and most important so far,'' says Graham. ''This is where the network will earn its spurs. We'll have to prove that we can handle a sensational case in a responsible manner.''
So far the critics have been lukewarm about the network. The Washington Post's Tom Shales wrote that ''Court TV may have as much to learn as it does to teach'' and called Graham a ''hickory-cured ham,'' complaining about his ''incessant yammering.''
There's been criticism from inside the courthouse, too. Predictably, many defense attorneys and some prosecutors are uncomfortable with televised trials. ''It's a bad idea,'' says Roy Black, William Kennedy Smith's lawyer. ''Cameras in the courtroom add pressure to the proceedings and skew the court's ability to judge fairly. Members of the jury are supposed to be concentrating on the evidence, not worrying about how they look on TV. If I had my way, I'd prefer that cameras not be there.''
Currently 45 states allow cameras in the courthouse and on July 1 some federal courtrooms were opened up to video as well. Brill, for one, thinks cable-ready courts help grease the wheels of justice: ''Study after study proves that videotaping trials has no adverse effect on the outcome. All it does is educate the public about how the court system works.'' He adds, ''If ever there was a trial that a defense attorney should want on TV, it's the Kennedy case. After all, we'll be showing the whole thing not just sensational little snippets on the evening news.''