Kerry Kennedy acquitted of drugged driving

2:00 PM, Feb 28, 2014   |    comments
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Kerry Kennedy, center, leaves Westchester County courthouse with sister Rory Kennedy, left, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, in White Plains, N.Y. FRANK FRANKLIN II, AP



WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - A jury found Kerry Kennedy not guilty Friday of driving while drugged.

The 54-year-old daughter of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was charged with a single count of driving while ability impaired by drugs, stemming from a July 13, 2012, incident in which she drove for miles down Interstate 684 while under the influence of Ambien, a fast-acting sleeping pill.

The four-man, two-woman panel began discussing the case late Thursday after lawyers for Kennedy made their closing arguments. After asking to have some testimony read to them, they went home and returned Friday morning. If convicted, Kennedy could have faced up to a year in jail.

At the heart of the case was whether the ex-wife of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and niece of President John F. Kennedy knowingly continued to drive after taking the pill, which she said was of similar color and shape to her thyroid medicine.

The Bedford, N.Y., resident fought the misdemeanor charges every step of the way, and the initial case was moved from North Castle Town Court to Westchester County Superior Court here because of what her lawyers argued would be a high-profile trial.

Both sides largely agreed that she drove around 5 miles down Interstate 684 in this New York suburb after she said she accidentally took a 10-milligram dose of zolpidem, the generic name for Ambien, the morning of July 13. Along the way she sped, swerved dangerously, hit a tractor-trailer, popped a tire, and, for some portion of the trip, drove on a bare rim before coming to a stop on New York 22 in Armonk, N.Y.

Kennedy grew up as a woman of privilege, the seventh of 11 children of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy, and became an author and human rights activist. The prosecution played up on that privilege, telling the jury in closing arguments that to be fair she should be held accountable for her actions as others are.

She now joins another exclusive club: The tiny percentage of defendants acquitted of misdemeanor charges in the county's courts. In 2012, the latest year available, only 21 people - 0.2% of all cases - were fully acquitted, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Kennedy had the option of a bench trial in front of Judge Robert Neary but instead opted for a jury trial. William Aronwald, one of Kennedy's lawyers, said his client opted for a jury trial to raise the bar for prosecutors, who had to convince the panel of her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In November 2012, Kennedy's brother, Douglas Kennedy, went on trial here on child-endangerment charges after a scuffle with nurses as he tried to remove his newborn from a hospital maternity ward. He, too, was acquitted.

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