TODAY   |  March 03, 2014

Kerry Kennedy ‘incredibly grateful’ for acquittal

Activist and writer Kerry Kennedy opens up to TODAY about being acquitted of “drugged driving,” and says her trial gave her a greater appreciation of the struggles many people face in negotiating the justice system without access to adequate legal counsel.

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

>>> now to a "today" exclusive. a soft acquittal on friday ended 2 20 months of legal jeopardy of our next guest. kerry kennedy took a sleeping pill by accident and got behind the wheel and fell asleep causing her to hit a tractor-trailer, damaging her car, but not injuring herself or anyone else.

>> she's with us now to talk about the trial, what she learned as well as her humanitarian work on behalf of the foundation which bears the name of her father, senator robert f. kennedy . thanks for being with us this morning.

>> great to be here. thanks, willie.

>> you hear the verdict, not guilty. relief, what were you feeling at that point?

>> yeah, mostly feeling incredibly grateful to my family and to my friends, to the jury, to my really wonderful lawyers and also to god for finding me not guilty.

>> how concerned were you, kerry, you might not hear not guilty?

>> well, i knew i was innocent. but you're putting your life into the hands of six people you've never met before. so it's a scary process.

>> people you never met, but obviously they know your last name. and your father's legacy, your family. a part of the media coverage , how does that feel to you?

>> well, you know, that's sort of all on the outside. and i really didn't read any of the papers or look at the media during the trial because i wanted to have my head in the trial.

>> but you know going in, again, these are people who don't know you personally but they know your family. and the legacy they think they do.

>> right. you know, i think what happened in my case is that i was innocent and they found me innocent because, number one, i was innocent, number two, i had competent counsel. and number three, i brought it to trial. and very few people in my position actually get to trial. mostly they plea. and they plea often if they're innocent to a crime they didn't commit. so it's really coerced, you know, it's a coerced confession to something they didn't do because they don't have access to competent counsel.

>> good representation.

>> right. and this was 20 months, a week off from work. i wasn't going to be fired from my job. and they take these pleas. which can really have a devastating impact on their lives. it can harm them in trying to seek a job, in trying to get a loan from a bank, in trying to just rent an apartment. it's a really bad system.

>> so much you do as your work, very important work as the president for rfk center for justice deals with exactly this. affording people the opportunity to have their legal rights represented. so how much of this case highlighted the problems for you that still exist?

>> well, you know, you hear about this from an intellectual point of view. but then when you're in the midst of it, you get a much better appreciation for the struggle that so many people have. just before we went on the show, we were talking about 75% of the people in jail in new york city are there because they can't make bail. they haven't even had a hearing. they haven't gone to trial. so, you know, they're just accused, they haven't been found guilty. and they're sitting in jail because they can't make bail. so we really have to rethink our system of justice in the united states .

>> and a lot of the focus on what you do is on migrant farm workers. you talk about the plight of that? because it's not something that gets a lot of attention here in the u.s.

>> well right now, for instance, in new york state, we're working on a labor practices act. farm workers in new york because of leftover jim crow laws have no right to a day off per week, have no right to overtime pay. child labor is still legal here. and they can be fired just for forming a union. so i worked -- i met one farm worker who worked for ten years in the state of new york without a single day off. and that's legal. so that's something we have to put an end to, as well.

>> well, we're grateful for the work you do and happy you're here sitting with us today. kerry kennedy , good to