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Lawyers argue whether Kennedy's drug-driving error was criminal

Kerry Kennedy, (2nd L) daughter of assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy and ex-wife of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, exits the Westchest
Kerry Kennedy, (2nd L) daughter of assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy and ex-wife of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, exits the Westchest

By Victoria Cavaliere

WHITE PLAINS, New York (Reuters) - Attorneys in the drugged driving trial of the daughter of assassinated U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy on Thursday debated whether Kerry Kennedy made a criminal mistake when she crashed her car in 2012 after inadvertently taking a sleeping pill.

Defense attorneys said in closing arguments that Kennedy, a 54-year-old author and activist, had intended to take a thyroid medication before driving her silver Lexus to the gym, but accidentally took the sleeping aid zolpidem, known by its brand name Ambien.

Prosecutors conceded that Kennedy had not intended to take the sleeping pill but should have realized her error before sideswiping a tractor-trailer on a suburban New York highway and driving away. No one was injured in the crash.

"Her mistake was a very serious one," Assistant District Attorney Doreen Lloyd said. "She set in motion a chain of events that were very dangerous."

Following closing arguments, the jury began deliberations.

Kennedy drove for more than five miles (eight km) at high speed, swerving into other lanes and the medians on both sides of the highway before striking the truck, eventually driving off the road with a shredded front tire, police said. She was found passed out over the wheel of her car and responding officers initially suspected she had suffered a seizure.

A toxicology report taken after the incident showed Kennedy had zolpidem in her bloodstream.

Defense attorneys told the jury that Kennedy had no memory of the event and remained completely unaware of her actions.

"Accidents are not crimes," Kennedy's attorney Gerald Lefcourt told the jury.

"You have not heard any evidence from the prosecution, that has the burden of proof, that she did realize (the mix-up)," Lefcourt said in Westchester County Court. "The people want you to believe that while she was in this condition, suddenly she realized something was wrong ... and she continued to drive along anyway."

Kennedy testified on Wednesday that she had nearly no memory of the event and never realized while driving she might be impaired by zolpidem.

Prosecutors argued that Kennedy, who has taken the drug intermittently for 10 years, recognized its associated symptoms of disorientation and sleepiness but continued to drive anyway.

"She knew she had taken the wrong pill because she felt it," Lloyd said.

Kennedy, who is also the ex-wife of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the niece of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, "must be held to the letter of the law," Lloyd said.

Members of Kennedy's family, including the senator's widow Ethel, have attended the trial, which started on Monday.

The prosecution relied on testimony from witnesses who called 911 after watching Kennedy drive erratically and by police who responded to the scene and found Kennedy groggy and disoriented. A county toxicologist said the onset symptoms of Ambien, including extreme drowsiness, are recognizable by the user.

The defense called character witnesses who testified to Kennedy's reputation for responsibility and sobriety. A pharmacology expert earlier on Thursday said Kennedy might have suffered an episode of sleep driving, going through the motions of operating her car without being awake.

Kennedy has pleaded not guilty to one count of impaired driving, a misdemeanor that carries up to a one-year jail sentence. With no prior record, Kennedy is unlikely to serve any time, court officials said.

The driver of the truck Kennedy hit, Rocco Scuiletti, also drove away and has pleaded not guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.

(Editing by Scott Malone; Editing by Richard Chang and Jonathan Oatis)

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