- Defense attorney suggests prosecution pursued case because of Kennedy name
- Kennedy was on trial on a misdemeanor charge of driving while impaired
- Prosecutor says she lied to protect her legacy
Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was acquitted in New York on Friday of charges of driving under the influence of a drug.
A jury deliberated for an hour and 10 minutes following a four-day trial that featured Kennedy's turn on the witness stand.
After jurors left the courtroom, Kennedy friends and family members, including her 85-year-old mother, Ethel Kennedy, applauded. Kennedy hugged lawyers, William Aronwald and Gerald Lefcourt, and, in an unusual move, shook the hands of the prosecutors.
As people filed out of courtroom, Kennedy told reporters she was not angry with the prosecutors who brought the case.
The 54-year-old former wife of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced a charge of driving while impaired after swerving off the road in her Lexus SUV and careening into a tractor-trailer on a New York interstate in morning rush-hour traffic in July 2012.
Outside court, Kennedy said she was "unbelievably grateful."
Lefcourt suggested that the prosecution pursued the case because of her name.
"You've got to wonder why an ill-advised prosecution like this was brought," the attorney said. "Is it because of who the defendant is? They concede that it was an accident and nevertheless they brought this case. I find this very depressing."
In a statement Friday, the Westchester County District Attorney's office said: "We prosecute 2,500 impaired driving cases annually in Westchester County. This case was treated no differently from any of the others. The jury heard all the evidence in this case and we respect their verdict."
Kennedy testified this week that she grabbed the wrong prescription bottle from her kitchen counter that morning and swallowed 10 milligrams of zolpidem, a sleep aid also known by the brand name Ambien. Neither she nor prosecutors disputed the fact that she drove erratically after taking the medication and sideswiped a tractor-trailer in Westchester County before she was found, slumped over her steering wheel, her car stalled.
"I now know thanks to the tox lab that I must have taken the sleeping medication by mistake," said Kennedy, looking at the jury as she testified.
Kennedy said she made cappuccino, had some carrots, prepared bags for the gym and office and had no problem leaving her apartment and getting to her vehicle the morning of the accident.
Her memory from that morning ends just before she entered the highway, Kennedy said. The next thing she recalls is a knock on the window of her SUV, and a man she thought was a police officer asking if she was OK.
"I was confused by that because I thought I was fine," she said on the stand.
During a contentious cross examination, Kennedy insisted that she would not have stayed behind the wheel if she'd felt the effects of the medication.
"If I'd realized I was impaired, I would have pulled over," she told prosecutor Doreen Lloyd, and also said she doesn't know what the side effects of zolpidem might feel like.
"You've taken this pill for 10 years and you can't tell me whether or not it makes you feel tired after you take it?" Lloyd asked.
"I guess I don't really think about how I'm feeling when I take it," Kennedy replied. "I take it, and then I'm asleep."
In closing arguments, the prosecution accused Kennedy of lying to police and the public to protect her legacy.
"She had a lot on her mind that morning. And she took the wrong pill by mistake," prosecutor Doreen Lloyd told jurors. "However, it also makes no sense whatsoever that at no point did she realize or feel tired or dizzy or drowsy. That makes no sense," she said. "She is responsible for the chain of events that happened after that."
Lloyd told jurors that Kennedy had a responsibility to pull off the road safely when she felt the effect of the drug. Her inconsistent statements about the incident, including the claim that her doctors said she'd had a seizure, were meant as a smokescreen, Lloyd said. "She knew. She knew right away that she had taken the wrong pill. She felt it. And I submit she was looking for an excuse, to avoid responsibility ... to control her public image."
Lefcourt told jurors there's no disputing that Kennedy ingested zolpidem and was "out of it" the morning of the crash.
"The dispute is this: Whether the prosecution has proved to you beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Kennedy operated her vehicle while she was aware that she had ingested zolpidem and, after becoming aware, she continued intentionally to drive. That's what this case is all about."
The jury of two women and four men began its deliberations Thursday afternoon. They stopped for the day without reaching a verdict before resuming deliberations Friday morning.
Kennedy faced up to a year in jail if convicted.