WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — 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 misdemeanor. It had carried the potential for up to a year in jail, which is often unlikely for a first-time offender.
“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.”
The trial centered on whether or not she realized she was impaired and should have stopped.
Both sides agreed the 54-year-old took the sleeping drug zolpidem unintentionally, mistaking it for her daily thyroid medication, before heading off to the gym on July 13, 2012.
But the prosecution argued that Kennedy became aware of the symptoms and knew of the pill mix-up, but that she had a schedule to keep.
Kennedy testified that the drug overpowered her and she doesn’t remember the crash.
“If I realized I was impaired I would have pulled over,” Kennedy testified Wednesday.
Kennedy hit a tractor-trailer on Interstate 684 and then continued to the next exit, where she was found disoriented and slumped at the steering wheel, according to witnesses.
Police said she failed several sobriety tests at the scene but passed several tests a few hours later at a police station.
Kennedy’s defense said what happened was an accident, not a crime.
“You’ve got to wonder why an ill-advised prosecution like this was pursued,” Kennedy’s lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, said afterward Friday. “They conceded this was an accident and nevertheless they pursued this case.”
“The DA never should have brought this case in the first place,” defense attorney William Aronwald said.
Aronwald said prosecutors told the defense that they could not dismiss the case because doing so would create the impression that Kennedy was getting special treatment.
“All we asked the prosecution to do was view her as if her name was Mary Housewife,” he said. “They were the ones who treated her differently because of who she is.”
The Westchester County district attorney’s spokesman, Lucian Chalfen, said the office prosecutes 2,500 impaired driving cases per year.
“This case was treated no differently from any of the others,” Chalfen said.
The prosecutor’s office issued a statement saying “the jury heard all the evidence in this case and we respect their verdict.”
A few days after the crash, Kennedy said her doctors believed it was caused by a seizure, stemming from a brain injury early in her life. Then blood tests found a small amount of zolpidem, sometimes sold under the brand name Ambien.
Kennedy’s defense introduced a medical journal article saying that people who take zolpidem frequently don’t recognize their impairment and even the prosecution’s toxicology expert acknowledged the medication could lead to someone “sleep-driving” without knowing it.
Lefcourt said the drug “hijacks your ability to make decisions.”
But the prosecutor said Kennedy’s testimony contradicted science showing the drug works gradually and spotlighted Kennedy’s shifting explanations of the episode, suggesting Kennedy was worried about her image.
“I really did have great, great lawyers and not many people would have access to that,” Kennedy told reporters, including CBS 2’s Lou Young. “We need to take a hard look at our criminal justice system in the United States to make sure it’s really just.”
Kennedy is the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, niece of President John F. Kennedy and the ex-wife of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Lefcourt told jurors in his closing argument that Kennedy was “not seeking advantage because of her family.”
The trial, he noted, was “not a TV call-in program. This is an American court.”
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