Fifty years ago, the Criminal Justice Act took effect. It was a piece of legislation that Robert F. Kennedy proudly noted as one of his public service legacies. Among its provisions was one assuring that people charged with federal crime who couldn't afford an attorney could get legal representation.
Today, there are some who say that even as we mark the anniversary of that law, the issue of lack of access to adequate representation remains a significant problem. One of the latest to make the case is RFK's daughter, Kerry.
Tennessee readers may recognize that she made news herself recently. The 54-year-old Kennedy was acquitted of driving under the influence. Specifically, she had been accused of drugged driving. The jury heard testimony for about four days and reached its verdict of acquittal in about one hour last Friday.
The misdemeanor charge stemmed from events in New York on July 13, 2012. Witnesses testified during the trial said that they saw Kennedy swerving on the highway for several miles. At one point, she sideswiped a semitrailer truck. Sometime later, police found her stopped vehicle. She was asleep at the wheel.
Kennedy admitted she had taken a sleeping pill before driving, but she testified she thought she had taken medication for a thyroid condition.
After the verdict was rendered, some critics suggested she won her case because she's a Kennedy. But Kennedy says she won because she was innocent and because she could afford competent counsel. That's something she says too many people can't afford and something that should be changed by law.
Kennedy says lack of access and other economic factors lead too many people to accept plea deals without consulting an attorney at all, even on misdemeanor charges such as the DUI she faced. The result, she notes, can be a conviction that winds up negatively affecting their ability to find work, obtain loans or even find shelter.
Legal experts would likely agree with Kennedy's observations. And they might go further and say that concern about cost should not prevent anyone from at least consulting an attorney about their case.
Source: TODAY, “Kerry Kennedy: I won case because 'I was innocent' and 'had competent counsel',” Eun Kyung Kim, March 3, 2014