WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — After less than an hour of deliberation and four days of arguments, experts and evidence, a six-person jury returned a verdict Friday of not guilty in the drugged-driving trial of Kerry Kennedy.
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 loss of her driving privileges and up to a year in jail.
"I want to say thank you to the jury for returning this verdict and for all their work over the last few days," Kennedy said outside the courtroom before thanking her lawyers and family, in particular "my mother, Ethel Kennedy."
Jurors declined to speak to the dozens of reporters and photographers who had gathered here since the start of the trial Monday and were escorted quietly from the courthouse by another exit.
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 realizing she took 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, at first saying she must have had a seizure.
The jury heard all of the evidence in this case, and we respect their verdict.
Lucian Chalfen, Westchester County District Attorney's Office
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 of a member of a prominent Democratic political family.
Both sides largely agreed that she drove her Lexus SUV about 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. She had been headed to a gym.
Kennedy grew up the seventh of 11 children of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy and became an author and human rights activist as an adult. She married Cuomo in 1990, and they divorced in 2005 while Cuomo was state attorney general.
The prosecution played up on her privileged background, telling the jury in closing arguments that to be fair she should be held accountable for her actions as others are.
With her acquittal she now joins another exclusive club: The tiny percentage of defendants found not guilty 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 wanted a jury trial to raise the bar for prosecutors, who had to convince the panel of her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Westchester County District Attorney's Office prosecutes 2,500 impaired-driving cases annually, and "this case was treated no differently from any of the others," Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the office, said in a statement.
"The jury heard all of the evidence in this case, and we respect their verdict," Chalfen said.
Kennedy's lawyers said the office never should have pressed charges in the first place.
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.