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Fellow motorist: Kerry Kennedy was slumped at steering wheel, disoriented

Kerry Kennedy, center, arrives, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014 at a courthouse for her trial in White Plains, NY. In 2012, Kennedy, the ex-wife of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was arrested after her car hit a tractor-trailer on an interstate highway near her home outside New York City. She drove to the next exit, where she failed a sobriety test, police said. Blood tests revealed a small amount of the sleeping drug zolpidem. Kennedy claims she accidentally took a sleeping pill instead of her daily thyroid medication. The trial is expected to last a week. (AP Photo/The Journal News, Ricky Flores)

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Kerry Kennedy, center, arrives, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014 at a courthouse for her trial in White Plains, NY. In 2012, Kennedy, the ex-wife of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was arrested after her car hit a tractor-trailer on an interstate highway near her home outside New York City. She drove to the next exit, where she failed a sobriety test, police said. Blood tests revealed a small amount of the sleeping drug zolpidem. Kennedy claims she accidentally took a sleeping pill instead of her daily thyroid medication. The trial is expected to last a week. (AP Photo/The Journal News, Ricky Flores)

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - Kerry Kennedy swerved her Lexus into a truck, damaging the car and blowing a tire, but kept driving and later was slumped at her steering wheel and disoriented, motorists testified Monday at her drugged-driving trial.

Her lawyer said she was "sleep-driving" because she had accidentally taken a sleeping pill.

Kennedy, ex-wife of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, daughter of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and niece of President John F. Kennedy, went on trial Monday in suburban New York.

Several Kennedy relatives, including her mother, Ethel Kennedy, sat in the gallery's front row.

In his opening statement, defence lawyer Gerald Lefcourt told the six jurors that Kennedy was not disputing that she drove erratically. But he said it happened because Kennedy accidentally took a zolpidem sleeping pill that morning instead of her thyroid medication.

Kennedy's blood tests revealed a small amount of zolpidem.

"The zolpidem kicks in. It shuts her down. She's in a state of sleep-driving," Lefcourt said.

Prosecutor Stefanie DeNise said even if the pill were taken accidentally, Kennedy violated the law "by failing to stop and pull over as she felt the onset of symptoms."

But Lefcourt said Kennedy never knew what the drug was doing to her. He said the medication "hijacks your ability to make decisions."

Kennedy was arrested in 2012 after her car hit a tractor-trailer on an interstate highway near her home outside New York City. She drove to the next exit, where she failed three of four sobriety tests, police said.

One fellow motorist, Henry Myers, said he saw Kennedy swerve her car into the tractor-trailer and keep driving despite damaging her tire.

"I saw smoke. I figured the car would stop," he said. When it didn't, he called emergency services.

Another driver, William Carlino, testified that a few minutes later he found Kennedy slumped over the wheel and disoriented, with the car running, in a left-turn lane. Carlino said her car had one tire blown out.

He said he ran from his car to hers and knocked on her window, which seemed to startle her.

"I asked if she was OK and she nodded in the affirmative," he testified. He also called police. After police arrived and questioned her, she sat barely moving in the back seat of a cruiser, according to police video shown to the jurors Monday. Lawyers for both sides said she was sleeping.

Ethel Kennedy, 85, walked slowly with an escort as she entered the courthouse. After the session, in late afternoon, she left in a wheelchair. Two of Kerry Kennedy's brothers, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Douglas Kennedy, also were in the courtroom.

The case was being heard in the trial-level state Supreme Court, a rarity for such a minor charge, but Kennedy's lawyers successfully argued that the Town Court in Armonk, which had jurisdiction, was too small and poorly equipped for the trial.

A town judge and a state judge both refused defence efforts to get the charge dismissed, despite warm letters from family and friends extolling Kennedy's work in human rights around the world.

Kennedy, 54, won permission from Justice Robert Neary to miss last week's jury selection because she was on a human rights trip to Western Sahara.

The trial is expected to last about a week.

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