The daughter of Robert F. Kennedy doesn't dispute the 2012 incident but says she accidentally took a sleeping pill.
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — There was little dispute in opening statements at Kerry Kennedy's trial Monday morning over what occurred the morning she was arrested in July 2012.
Kennedy, 54, of Bedford, N.Y., had taken a powerful sleeping drug, popularly known as Ambien.
She then drove her Lexus SUV, the one with a Joe-Kennedy-for-Congress bumper sticker, down Interstate 684. She began swerving dangerously at high speeds, eventually striking a tractor-trailer, popping a tire, driving on a bare rim for a time and coming to a stop in Armonk, N.Y., slumped over the wheel and "passed out," a witness said.
Kennedy is the ex-wife of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Robert F. Kennedy's daughter and the niece of the late president John F. Kennedy.
But the central question, her lawyers said, centered on intent. Did Kennedy knowingly continue to drive even after she knew that she had mixed up her medications?
Prosecutors argued that she did.
But her lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, disagreed, saying the Ambien had "hijacked" her decision-making that morning.
"This is not someone who was on some party drug," Lefcourt said.
Prosecutors said that hardly mattered, though.
"Her actions and decisions she made that day would result in her arrest," Assistant District Attorney Stefanie DeNise said in her opening statement.
Kennedy's trial began Monday at the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains, N.Y., with all of the trappings of a Kennedy trial: extra court officers, a special courtroom and a dedicated part of the court gallery for the news media. It also had Kennedy family cameos, including brothers Douglas Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and, notably, Ethel Kennedy, her 85-year-old mother and the widow of Robert F. Kennedy.
Ethel Kennedy, who rarely appears in public, and did not appear at Douglas Kennedy's 2012 child-endangerment trial, came and left the courthouse in a wheelchair, at one point glaring at a reporter who asked her for comment.
The case was being heard in state Supreme Court, a rarity for such a minor charge, but Kennedy's lawyers successfully argued that the Town Court in Armonk, which had jurisdiction, was too small and poorly equipped for the trial.
A town judge and a state judge refused defense efforts to get the charge dismissed, despite warm letters from family and friends extolling Kennedy's work in human rights around the world.
The trial is expected to last at least a week. Her guilt will be decided by a jury of four men and two women.
Kennedy is facing a single count of driving while impaired by drugs. If convicted she could face a loss of driving privileges, fines and up to one year in jail.
Kennedy has opted to fight the case at every turn, despite what both sides agree was a clear "fact-pattern" about what occurred the morning of July 13, 2012.
One driver, among the first to see Kennedy after her car stopped in a left-turn late on Route 22, said he tapped on her window to see whether she was OK. She nodded yes but, sensing something wrong, and noticing the blown tire, the driver called police anyway.
When they arrived, DeNise said, Kennedy at first denied taking any medication, before failing sobriety tests. She later said she had accidentally mixed up thyroid medication and Ambien, a powerful sleeping pill.
More than two hours later she had sobered up, DeNise said; more than four hours after that, a blood test revealed that she had a small amount of sleeping drug zolpidem in her system.
Another witness said he saw Kennedy swerve her car into the tractor-trailer and keep driving despite damaging her tire.
In defending Kennedy, Lefcourt is not expected to disagree with the facts, so much as Kennedy's intent. He also is expected to rely heavily on Kennedy's public image, as he did Monday in his opening statement, when he called her a "very serious person," and noted that two of her daughters attend Brown University and Harvard University.
Lefcourt was admonished at one point to stick to the facts of the case. Lefcourt changed course and promised he would.
"This case is about a mistake, plain and simple," Lefcourt said.
The prosecution called four witnesses Monday, two drivers and two police officers.
They also showed a lengthy police-cruiser video that caught some of Kennedy's arrest. At one point Kennedy, who was wearing a white tank top, blue gym shorts, and white sneakers, sat curled up in the back of her SUV; later she is seen dozing off in the rear seat of a police cruiser.
The trial will continue Tuesday. Kennedy and her lawyers declined to comment on the case Monday as they walked out of the courthouse.
Contributing: The Associated Press