WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. Feb. 26, 2014 -- A New York jury was poised to begin deliberations after Kerry Kennedy told them today how she accidentally took prescription sleeping pills that then "overtook" her, causing her to crash her car on a New York highway.
Kennedy, 54, took the stand to testify in her own defense today in her drugged driving trial. She is accused of driving under the influence of zolpidem, a sleep medication better known as Ambien, and slamming her Lexus SUV into a truck on a New York highway in July 2013.
One final witness, a forensic pharmacologist, is expected to be called by the defense on Thursday to testify to the effects of Ambien before final arguments are made and the case goes to the jury.
Within minutes of taking the stand today Kennedy invoked the name of her late father, Robert F. Kennedy, and told the jury that he was killed while running for president. Kennedy's famous lineage has been a focal point for the defense as they've tried to present her as an upstanding citizen with no drug or alcohol problems.
The daughter of RFK and Ethel Kennedy, whom she was photographed pushing in a wheelchair into and out of court earlier in the week, is also a niece of President John F. Kennedy and was married to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"Daddy was the attorney general during the civil rights movement," Kerry Kennedy said after taking the stand today, explaining to jurors why she grew up in Virginia.
"I have 10 brothers and sisters. My mother raised us because my father died when I was 8," she said. Asked how he died, Kennedy said, "He was killed while running for president."
Kennedy's attorney Gerald Lefcourt said that she was "fabulous" and "perfect" on the stand, particularly when takling about her father.
"I thought tears came to several peoples eyes as she was talking about her father, daddy. It was excellent," Lefcourt said outside court. "I thought she was fabulous and she was perfect."
Kennedy denied knowingly or intentionally taking Ambien on the morning of the car crash. She also denied realizing she was coming under its effects as she left her home and began driving in her SUV.
Prosecutor Doreen Lloyd attempted to portray Kennedy as a frequent Ambien user who should've known its effects, but Kennedy said she never thinks about how she feels after taking the pill before bed.
"I just go to sleep," she said.
"Ambien overtook you without warning?" Lloyd asked.
"Yes," she replied.
When asked about her morning routine, Kennedy explained that on the morning of the crash she had a breakfast of cappucino and carrots. She had to go through a "15 or 20 step process" to prepare the cappuccino on a complicated-sounding coffee maker, and in the process said she mistook Ambien for Synthoid, the medication she takes daily for an underactive thyroid.
"I know now thanks to the tox [toxicology] lab that I was taking my sleep medication by mistake," she said.
The defense showed the jury pictures of the pill bottles and pills themselves which looked, as Kennedy said, "very similar." Her lawyer noted Kennedy's light breakfast of carrots and cappucino could have made the drug affect her more quickly due to a somewhat-empty stomach.
Kennedy said she remembers beginning to drive that morning because she remembers "thinking how beautiful the light was filtering through the trees at that hour," but then her memories "are really jumbled."
Kennedy said the next thing she remembers is an officer approaching her stopped car.
"He said 'Have you been in an accident?' And I said no because as far as I was concerned I hadn't been in an accident," Kennedy said. She said she felt dizzy, disoriented, confused and frightened that she had no memory and "that I had amnesia" about what had happened.
"Did you realize you were impaired," her attorney Lefcourt asked. "No," Kennedy said. "If I realized I was impaired I would have pulled over."
Prior to Kennedy's testimony today, the defense has focused much of its efforts on presenting Kennedy as an upstanding heir to a presidential legacy. In the opening statements, Kennedy's defense attorney was scolded for harping on the fact that she is the niece of a former president.
"She is not seeking any advantages here because of her famous family," defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt said in response to the judge.
The defense has called a string of character witnesses in front of the jury, including an Irish priest, Kennedy's sister and friends, and humanitarian workers who have testified to Kennedy's soberness and upstanding moral character.
Kerry Kennedy Said She Had "Amnesia" About Her Car Crash"
Rory Kennedy, Kerry's younger sister, said her sister has a reputation for being sober and healthy. She said the two sisters, nine years apart, have a "very close relationship."
"She's really my best friend," Rory Kennedy said under oath.
One witness, neighbor Emily Liebert, testified today that Kennedy asked her to go to Kennedy's home the night of her arrest and count her sleep pills and thyroid pills out of concern she had either mixed up her medication or had a seizure.
Meanwhile, Kennedy has sat at the defense table, at times fingering rosary beads as others have testified. Earlier this week, she was photographed pushing her mother, Ethel Kennedy, in a wheelchair into and out of court.
The prosecution alleges that Kennedy chose to drive while under the effects of the sleep medication, saying that if she truly did take the medicine accidentally, she should have pulled over when she felt it beginning to affect her. Instead she continued to drive for five miles before the crash.
A toxicologist the prosecution called to testify, however, said that the medicine can work quickly, and begin to affect someone within 15 minutes.
"People start to have effects in 15 minutes to a half hour" after taking it, said Elizabeth Spratt of the Westchester County Department of Labs.