Kerry Kennedy talks to TODAY's Matt Lauer

TODAY   |  March 03, 2014

Kerry Kennedy: Acquittal was due to 'competent counsel'

Sitting down with TODAY’s Matt Lauer, activist and writer Kerry Kennedy opens up about the relief she feels after her drugged-driving acquittal, and maintains that her acquittal was based on her innocence and access to good counsel.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> a four-day trial and hour of jury deliberations, kerry kennedy , the daughter of robert f. kennedy was found not guilty at her drugged driving trial. she walked out of court flanked by family and friends. the case back in july of 2012 . and kerry kennedy joins us now. good morning, nice to see you.

>> great to be here, thanks.

>> for the first time in 18 months, you spent a weekend without these charges hanging over your head. how did that feel?

>> it was very nice. great to have that off my mind.

>> i read a lot of coverage of the trial over the last couple of days, kerry and seemed like two groups here with strong opinions. one opinion was this case would never have ended up in court had it not been the fact your last name is kennedy . and another group saying you would not have been acquitted had your last name not been kennedy .

>> i think they're both wrong. i think in west chester county, they have a policy of pursuing every single case of driving under the influence whether the police think the person's innocent, whether the d.a. thinks they're innocent. and this is a terrible policy because it means that a lot of people who are innocent get caught up in the criminal justice system .

>> let's talk about the impact of the kennedy name. some of the critics, your critics talked about the fact that you brought your mom, your 85-year-old mom to court every day. and during your testimony when you took the witness stand , you referred to your dad who has run for president and his assassination. and they screamed she's playing the kennedy card to wow this jury. fair?

>> right. you know, i think that i won this case for three basic reasons. number one, i was innocent. number two, i had competent counsel. and number three, i was willing to bring it to trial. and those are things that many, many, many americans have no access to. and that's really what we have to focus on with this case.

>> you talk about competent counsel. you had some of the best lawyers in this country because you can afford to have those lawyers. if your name were kerry jones , do you think you would have had the same outcome?

>> well, i think that the reason that i had competent counsel because it was accessible to me and that's a big problem in america. because for so many people who have misdemeanors, are not able to afford counsel. they can't go out and hire lawyers and therefore, they plead to something nay didn't do.

>> yeah. if your name were kerry jones , you might have taken a plea on this case.

>> so jones is different. so it's access to being able to afford hiring a lawyer who is competent to do the case. and that's why it's really interesting. because this is actually the 50th anniversary of the criminal justice act , which was the seminal piece of legislation my father passed as attorney general to assure access to counsel for criminal defense defenders. and we need that in states across our country. we don't have that in new york state today. and we've got to pass legislation which will allow people to have access to competent counsel no matter who they are.

>> what you're talking about now is what your life's work has been about. if i were to google you, i have a feeling the top 10 or 15 things on that google search would be about this trial. that's not what you want. how much have these charges hurt your ability to do the work you've been doing for most of your life?

>> well, you know, it does hurt. and that's part of the reason i didn't have a plea. for instance, in this particular case, if i had pled, i would not be allowed to go canada for ten years or australia or new zealand and many, many other countries. in fact, if you plead to something like this overseas, you're not allowed back in the united states for ten years. so a lot of countries have these rules and regulations which is another way that the plea system really harms our country.

>> and i want to mention that the work you've done in your life was not on trial in this case. and we're going to talk more about what you have been doing and how you want to change the conversation post trial coming up in our next segment. we appreciate it.

>> thank you.

>> kerry, nice to have you