WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - Kerry Kennedy was acquitted Friday of drugged driving after she accidentally took a sleeping pill and then sideswiped a truck in a wild highway drive she said she didn't remember.
Kennedy hugged and clasped hands with her lawyers as a six-person jury cleared her of driving while impaired, a misdemeanour. It had carried the potential for up to a year in prison, though that would be unlikely for a first-time offender.
A human-rights advocate, Kennedy is a scion of one political dynasty — a daughter of slain Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and niece of President John F. Kennedy — and a onetime member of another, as the former wife of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Her 85-year-old mother, Ethel Kennedy, and other members of their famous family attended the trial, which drew so much attention that it was moved from a small-town courtroom to a bigger courthouse in White Plains.
"I'm incredibly grateful to the jury for working so hard on this case ... and to my lawyers ... and to my family and friends and so many other people who supported me," Kennedy said afterward. "I'm happy justice was done."
Kennedy's attorneys said she should have been treated like a regular person, and it was the prosecutors who gave her special treatment, they said, by refusing to drop the case.
The district attorney's office denied the accusation. And Kennedy herself said she wasn't angry about being put on trial.
Laurence Leamer, who has written three books about the Kennedys, said: "The Kennedys are very loyal to each other in a crisis. ... It's one of the most admirable things about them." He said there's no way to gauge the effect on the jury, but "Kennedys or not, it's Defence 101 to have family members sitting there for the jury to see."
Tobe Berkovitz, a political media consultant and professor of advertising at Boston University, said: "The Kennedys saw this as a DA overreaching, making a big case out of a silly mistake. So they absolutely played every Camelot trump card they had in the deck. They had the family. They had questions about her losing her father as a young girl."
He added, "When the legacy is being challenged, they all step up and fight."
The trial drew so much attention that it was moved from a small-town courtroom to the county courthouse in White Plains.
After four days of testimony, a six-person jury took a little over an hour to find Kennedy not guilty of driving while impaired.
Kennedy, 54, had been arrested in 2012 after swerving into a tractor-trailer on an interstate highway and failing sobriety tests. She testified that she had accidentally taken a sleeping pill instead of her daily thyroid medication that morning and had no memory of the wild ride on the highway.
"If I realized I was impaired, I would have pulled over," Kennedy told the jury.
Prosecutors acknowledged that Kennedy unintentionally took the drug, zolpidem, but they told jurors she had to have known she was impaired and should have stopped driving.
When the jury forewoman read the verdict, Kennedy smiled broadly, hugged one attorney and clasped hands with another. Her family and friends applauded.
The charge was a misdemeanour that rarely goes to trial, but Kennedy was unwilling to settle the case and two judges refused to dismiss it.
Her family's storied and sorrow-filled history crept into the trial when Lefcourt asked about her upbringing and her work as president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
Kennedy testified that while she was growing up, the family lived near Washington because, "Daddy was the attorney general."
"My mother raised us because my father died when I was 8," she said. "He was killed when he was running for president."
Kennedy's lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, then told jurors in his closing argument that Kennedy was "not seeking advantage because of her family." And another defence attorney, William Aronwald, said Friday that Kennedy wanted to be treated "as if her name was Mary Housewife."
But Aronwald said prosecutors told her they could not dismiss the case, because "it would create the impression that Kerry Kennedy received special treatment because of her name."
He said prosecutors "were the ones who treated her differently because of who she is."
The Westchester County district attorney's office disputed the lawyers' suggestion, saying in a statement it treated her case just like the other 2,500 impaired driving cases that happen every year in Westchester.
Kennedy, at a news conference outside, noted that few people have the resources to fight such a charge.
"We need to take a hard look at our criminal justice system in the United States and make sure it really is just and everyone in our country has true access to justice," Kennedy said.
© Copyright 2014