Conn. Trial Highlights Problem of 'Date Rape'

He is a former high school wrestling star who has spent the last decade playing in Europe's toniest ski resorts, evading US authorities because he says he believed he could not get a fair trial.

She is a young woman, also from the upper-crust community of Darien, Conn., who claims that Alex Kelly raped her in the back of his girlfriend's car after she accepted a ride home from a party.

The two met in court this week, 10 years after their first scheduled trial, in a case that experts say could heighten the issue of "date rape" in America's collective consciousness.

Having already attracted national attention, the case could make victims of date rape aware of the resources available to them, as the O.J. Simpson trial did for victims of domestic violence - or, some say, if Mr. Kelly is acquitted it could have a chilling effect on the number of women willing to take their cases to court.

"It's probably one of the most high-profile cases since Mike Tyson," says Scott Berkowitz, a board member of the Washington-based Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. The boxing champion was arrested in 1991 and later convicted of raping a woman he met at a black beauty pageant.

"Whatever the outcome of the case, it will be valuable," says Mr. Berkowitz. "Anything that draws attention to an issue like this is helpful."

The trial comes at a time when date rape has attracted the attention of law-enforcement officers and politicians because of the increasing use of Rohypnol and other so-called date rape drugs, which are used by attackers to incapacitate their victims. The drugs are said to make a person unable to fight, or even sometimes remember, a rape. President Clinton signed a bill this week outlawing the drugs.

Statistics show that acquaintance rape occurs far more often than assaults by someone unknown to the victim. Of the 106,500 rapes documented by the FBI in 1991, 40 percent were perpetrated by acquaintances, 29 percent by boyfriends or husbands, 8 percent by another relative. Only 23 percent involved strangers. The FBI estimates that some 60 percent of rapes are not reported.

But the term date rape was not even coined until the 1970s. Awareness of the issue grew in the 1980s, and it has become accepted as a major social problem in the '90s, experts say.

Today laws have become more responsive to rape victims in general, which helps victims of date rape, who typically have an even harder time in court because physical evidence is seldom available and the trials center around whether the victim consented to having sex.

Education about date rape is more prevalent now, often starting in junior high. It is especially intense on college campuses, where the incidence of date rape is highest.

But some worry that the increased awareness may be creating a backlash. "A lot of college and high school students think the court decisions on this are very fishy and think they give women far too much power," says Casey Jordan, who teaches a course on rape in the criminology department at Western Connecticut State University. "They can repeat after me that 'No means no,' but I'm not sure they internalize that into their own moral values."

Despite the difficulty of proving rape cases, Mr. Kelly will face some formidable evidence. When he was arrested for raping two women within four days in 1986, he already had a criminal record. Lawyers say Kelly's fleeing the country will likely be seen by a jury as an admission of guilt.

Furthermore, Kelly was arrested last month for wrecking a former girlfriend's car, after which authorities say he fled the scene, leaving the woman behind seriously injured. Also, the rape victim made a strong showing as a witness when the trial opened Tuesday.

"This is a tough case. He's not a very sympathetic client," says New York attorney Judd Burstein. "But in cases where there have been fairly notorious defendants, there have also been acquittals."

Kelly's parents have hired high-profile lawyer Thomas Puccio, who has already succeeded in making the courtroom climate more favorable for Kelly by having the judge agree to try Kelly's two rape cases separately and throw out some evidence surrounding his fleeing the US.

Regardless of the outcome, Debbie Pauls at the Stamford Rape and Sexual Abuse Crisis Center says the trial will focus attention to the prevalence of date rape in affluent communities and among younger teens. "There's been a lot of disbelief [that this could happen] especially in a place like Darien. But what it's taught the community is that, just like you can't hide from drug and alcohol problems among teens ... you can't hide the occurrence of sexual assault."

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