Law Enforcement Too Strict (She Says)

By Jeffrey Page

First, she sideswiped a tractor trailer truck on Route 684.

Then it was the sight of her driving with one flat tire that caused several people to call the state police to report someone driving dangerously.

The case eventually went to trial in Westchester County and she was found not guilty of driving under the influence.

It was Kerry Kennedy, 54, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and ex-wife of Governor Andrew Cuomo, at the wheel. I’m inclined to believe her explanation that her erratic driving was the result of mistakenly taking a potent sleeping pill instead of her thyroid medication. I have no sympathy for drunken or drugged drivers but as far as intent is concerned, I still buy Kennedy’s story of a mistake and think the jury reached a fair and correct conclusion.

Now, incredibly, Kennedy says she thinks the district attorney is a little too aggressive in bringing drunken driving charges, and she went on television to offer a critique of the justice system in Westchester County. In this, like a Ringling Bros. clown, she stepped in a bucket.

Appearing on the Today program, Kennedy told Matt Lauer: “I think in Westchester 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.”

(Well, if the district attorney thought Kennedy was innocent, she could have declined to prosecute. But she’s the official who runs the criminal justice system in Westchester – and she decided to proceed.)

“And,” Kennedy continued, “this is a terrible policy because it means a lot of people who are innocent get caught up in the criminal justice system.”

It also means that a lot of people who are guilty get prosecuted. A terrible policy? I think rules that might make people think twice before driving home while blind drunk is a pretty good policy.

What is Kennedy saying? That district attorneys ought not pursue DWI cases? Or not prosecute the one against Kerry Kennedy? Or that we should do way with the criminal justice system altogether unless we can establish a defendant’s guilt or innocence without the inconvenience of seating a jury?

Since incidents of drunken drinking, crashes, deaths and injuries are so random – any of us could be a victim – the district attorney who pursues “every single case of driving under the influence” gets my vote.

Meanwhile, maybe what Kerry Kennedy and all of us need is a clear picture of what is meant by use of the word “injured” in most newspaper stories about DWI incidents. Does it mean a cut on someone’s face? A broken arm? A sprained ankle? Worse? Newspapers usually don’t follow up and discuss the “injuries.”

So let me tell you and Kerry Kennedy the story of Barbara Rokas, whose encounter with a drunken driver occurred in 1990. I became aware of her in 2001 when she contacted me at The Record of Hackensack to tell me what happened to her. (Long-time readers of Zest of Orange may recall some of this information from a column I wrote in 2009.)

Kennedy ought to read the complete inventory of injuries inflicted on Barbara Rokas before she complains about the D.A.’s office being too aggressive, too persistent, too determined in its prosecution of drunken drivers.

Barbara was driving through Kearny, N.J. on her way to pick up her husband. A car came speeding down Chestnut Street and smashed into her car. One estimate at the time was that the kid driving the other car was doing 75 mph. It was also revealed that he had been drinking since 7 in the morning; he encountered Rokas at 3:30 p.m. His blood alcohol level was 0.19; the legal limit was 0.10.

Barbara’s blood was all over the pavement. First aid responders thought she was dead and covered her face. But she was alive.

She needed about 500 stitches to close the cuts on her head alone. She was in a coma for 22 days. She suffered serious brain damage. She had a fractured thighbone and collarbone. She was paralyzed on her right side. She was deaf in one ear. She had double vision. She had severe memory loss. She was confined to a wheelchair. She had slurred speech.

Then came lawyer talk. “[She] has also suffered, and will continue to suffer, loss of the pleasures and pursuits of life and a diminution and impairment of her capacity to enjoy life,” her attorney said in court papers.

That was 24 years ago. Barbara is now 72. Life hasn’t gotten much easier.

Kennedy could learn a lot by talking with Barbara, who is the unfortunate stand-in for all of us: you, me, your mother, your sister, your kid, your husband, your wife. She could be Kerry Kennedy.

And so it brings a profound sense of relief when I read a story in the paper about a tenacious prosecutor presenting a case to a jury and a judge who understand the misery drunken drivers cause.

That, incidentally, would be unlike the judge who sentenced the man responsible for reducing Barbara Rokas’ life to – her word – “a zero.” The penalty was two months of weekend home confinement. That was 1999.

Barbara Rokas still struggles to get dressed every morning.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply