(Adds comments from prosecution witnesses)
By Victoria Cavaliere
WHITE PLAINS N.Y. Feb 24 A Kennedy family
member's groggy behavior after her 2012 arrest for side-swiping
a tractor trailer in New York was not the result of a criminal
act but of mistakenly taking a sleeping pill instead of thyroid
medication, her lawyers argued at her trial Monday.
Kerry Kennedy, 54, daughter of assassinated Senator Robert
F. Kennedy and the ex-wife of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo,
has pleaded not guilty to a charge of driving while impaired.
"This case is about a mistake, plain and simple," defense
attorney Gerald Lefcourt said in his opening statement in
Westchester County Court in White Plains, about 35 miles (56 km)
north of New York City.
Lefcourt said it was a medication mix-up that led to
Kennedy's arrest for erratically driving her silver Lexus on
Interstate 684 near North Castle in Westchester County the
morning of July 13, 2012.
Kennedy, who wore a gray dress and jacket and black-rimmed
glasses in court, is expected to take the stand later in her
trial, due to run about a week.
Her mother, Ethel Kennedy, widow of Senator Kennedy, was
also in the courtroom as Lefcourt described Kennedy as a devout
Roman Catholic and a devoted humanitarian and mother who would
never willfully drive while impaired.
"If she would have realized her mistake and known she was
not in the right condition to drive her car that day, she would
never have continued on the road," he told the jury.
Kennedy, who is also the niece of assassinated President
John F. Kennedy, "is not seeking any advantage here because of
her famous family," Lefcourt said. "On the other hand, she
should not be punished because of it."
SERVING TIME UNLIKELY
A jury trial is unusual for a relatively minor unclassified
misdemeanor. If convicted, Kennedy could face up to a year in
prison, but with no prior criminal record, it is unlikely she
would serve any time behind bars, court officials said.
A toxicology report after Kennedy's arrest showed she had
the drug zolpidem, which is sold under the brand name Ambien, in
her system. The drug is a slow-acting medication to induce sleep
and overcome insomnia.
Prosecutors said Kennedy continued to drive her car after
realizing she was impaired, endangering herself and other
drivers, before running off the road and passing out behind the
Witnesses testified on Monday that they saw her Lexus
traveling at high speed, tailgating and veering into other
Henry Myers, who saw Kennedy collide with the tractor
trailer and then called 911, said her "car took off pretty
quick. She got into the middle lane and was swerving into the
Nobody was injured during the accident.
"It was an ominous and regrettable day for this defendant
Kerry Kennedy," said Assistant District Attorney Stefanie DeNise
during opening statements. "Still she continued to operate her
car in an unsafe manner."
Kennedy drove about 5 miles (8 km) while swerving into other
lanes of traffic, the grassy median and eventually a tractor
trailer, prosecutors told the jury.
The prosecution also called three law enforcement officers
to the witness stand, including William McClure, a North Castle
McClure said when he approached Kennedy's car, he saw "the
front passenger tire almost completely shredded. There was black
marks, and damage to the back passenger side of the car."
He testified that Kennedy appeared disoriented, her speech
very slow and deliberate. She was dressed in gym clothes and at
first told officers she was headed to New York City before
telling them about 20 minutes later she was headed to a nearby
gym, McClure said.
"For a while we had her sit in the back of her SUV so she
wouldn't fall," he said.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Grant McCool and Mohammad