The "Chappaquiddick incident" refers to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign worker for the assassinated U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York.
In July of 1969, Kopechne's dead body was discovered inside an overturned car belonging to Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts under water in a tidal channel on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts.
The incident became a national scandal, and may have affected the Senator's decision not to run for President in 1972.
On July 18, 1969, Ted Kennedy attended a party on Chappaquiddick, a small island connected via ferry to the main part of the town of Edgartown
on the adjoining larger island of Martha's Vineyard
. The party was a reunion for a group of six women, including Kopechne, known as the "boiler-room girls
", who had served in his brother Robert's
1968 presidential campaign. Also present were Joseph Gargan
(Ted Kennedy's cousin), Paul Markham (a school friend of Gargan's who would become United States Attorney for Massachusetts under the patronage of the Kennedys
), Charles Tretter (an attorney), and John Crimmins (Ted Kennedy's part-time driver). Kennedy was also competing in the Edgartown Yacht Club
Regatta, a sailing competition which was taking place over several days.
Events of the night of July 18, 1969
According to his own testimony at the inquest into Kopechne's death, Kennedy left the party at "approximately 11:15 p.m." When he announced that he was about to leave, Kopechne indicated "that she was desirous of leaving, if I would be kind enough to drop her back at her hotel". Kennedy then requested the keys to his car from his chauffeur, Crimmins. Asked why he did not have his chauffeur drive them both, Kennedy explained that Crimmins along with some other partygoers "were concluding their meal, enjoying the fellowship and it didn't appear to me necessary to require him to bring me back to Edgartown".
Christopher "Huck" Look was a deputy sheriff working as a special police officer at the Edgartown regatta dance that night. At 12:30 am he left the dance, crossed over to Chappaquiddick in the yacht club's launch, got into his parked car and drove home. He testified that between 12:30 and 12:45 am he had seen a dark car containing a man driving and a woman in the front seat approaching the intersection with Dike Road. The car had gone first onto the private Cemetery Road and stopped there. Thinking that the occupants of the car might be lost, Look had gotten out of his car and walked towards it. When he was 25 to 30 feet away, the car started backing up towards him. When Look called out to offer his help, the car took off down Dike Road in a cloud of dust. Look recalled that the car's license plate began with a "L" and contained the number "7", both details true of Kennedy's 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88.
According to his inquest testimony, Kennedy made a wrong turn onto Dike Road, an unlit dirt road that led to Dike Bridge (also spelled Dyke Bridge). Dike Road was unpaved, but Kennedy, driving at "approximately twenty miles an hour", took "no particular notice" of this fact, and did not realize that he was no longer headed towards the ferry landing. Dike Bridge was a wooden bridge angled obliquely to the road with no guardrail. A fraction of a second before he reached the bridge, Kennedy applied his brakes; he then drove over the side of the bridge. The car plunged into tide-swept Poucha Pond (at that location a channel) and came to rest upside down underwater. Kennedy later recalled that he was able to swim free of the vehicle, but Kopechne was not. Kennedy claimed at the inquest that he called Kopechne's name several times from the shore, then tried to swim down to reach her seven or eight times, then rested on the bank for around fifteen minutes before returning on foot to Lawrence Cottage, where the party attended by Kopechne and other "Boiler Room Girls" had occurred. Kennedy denied seeing any house with a light on during his journey back to Lawrence Cottage.
According to one commentator, his route back to the cottage would have taken him past four houses from which he could have telephoned and summoned help; however, he did not do so.
According to Kennedy's testimony, Gargan and party co-host Paul Markham then returned to the pond with Kennedy to try to rescue Kopechne. Both of the other men also tried to dive into the water and rescue Kopechne multiple times. When their efforts to rescue Kopechne failed, Kennedy testified, Gargan and Markham drove with Kennedy to the ferry landing, both insisting multiple times that the accident had to be reported to the authorities. According to Markham's testimony Kennedy was sobbing and on the verge of breaking down. Kennedy went on to testify that "[I] had full intention of reporting it. And I mentioned to Gargan and Markham something like, 'You take care of the other girls; I will take care of the accident!' -- that is what I said and I dove into the water". Kennedy had already told Gargan and Markham not to tell the other women anything about the incident "[b]ecause I felt strongly that if these girls were notified that an accident had taken place and Mary Jo had, in fact, drowned, that it would only be a matter of seconds before all of those girls, who were long and dear friends of Mary Jo's, would go to the scene of the accident and enter the water with, I felt, a good chance that some serious mishap might have occurred to any one of them". Gargan and Markam would testify that they assumed that Kennedy was going to inform the authorities once he got back to Edgartown, and thus did not do so themselves.
According to his own testimony, Kennedy swam across the 500-foot channel, back to Edgartown and returned to his hotel room, where he removed his clothes and collapsed on his bed. Hearing noises, he later put on dry clothes and asked someone what the time was: it was something like 2:30 a.m., the senator recalled. He testified that, as the night went on, "I almost tossed and turned and walked around that room ... I had not given up hope all night long that, by some miracle, Mary Jo would have escaped from the car."
Back at his hotel, Kennedy complained at 2:55 am to the hotel owner that he had been awoken by a noisy party. By 7:30 am the next morning he was talking "casually" to the winner of the previous day's sailing race, with no indication that anything was amiss. At 8 a.m., Gargan and Markham joined Kennedy at his hotel where they had a "heated conversation". According to Kennedy's testimony, the two men asked why he hadn't reported the accident. Kennedy responded by telling them "about my own thoughts and feelings as I swam across that channel ... that somehow when they arrived in the morning that they were going to say that Mary Jo was still alive". The three men subsequently crossed back to Chappaquiddick Island on the ferry, where Kennedy made a series of phone calls from a payphone by the crossing to his friends for advice; he again did not report the accident to authorities.
Discovery of the body
Earlier that morning, two amateur fishermen had seen the overturned car in the water and notified the inhabitants of the nearest cottage to the pond, who called the authorities at around 8:20 am. A diver was sent down and discovered Kopechne's body at around 8:45 am. The diver, John Farrar, later testified at the inquest that Kopechne's body was pressed up in the car in the spot where an air bubble would have formed. He interpreted this to mean that Kopechne had survived for a while after the initial accident in the air bubble, and concluded that
Had I received a call within five to ten minutes of the accident occurring, and was able, as I was the following morning, to be at the victim's side within twenty-five minutes of receiving the call, in such event there is a strong possibility that she would have been alive on removal from the submerged car.
Police checked the car's license plate and saw that it was registered to Kennedy. When Kennedy, still at the pay phone by the ferry crossing, saw that the body had been discovered, he crossed back to Edgartown and went to the police station: Gargan simultaneously went to the hotel where the Boiler Room Girls were staying to inform them about the incident.
Kennedy's initial statement
At 10 am Kennedy entered the police station in Edgartown, made a couple of phone calls, then dictated a statement to his aide Paul Markham, which was then given to the police. The statement ran as follows:
On July 18, 1969, at approximately 11:15 p.m. in Chappaquiddick, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, I was driving my car on Main Street on my way to get the ferry back to Edgartown. I was unfamiliar with the road and turned right onto Dike Road, instead of bearing hard left on Main Street. After proceeding for approximately one-half mile on Dike Road I descended a hill and came upon a narrow bridge. The car went off the side of the bridge. There was one passenger with me, one Miss Mary [Kopechne], a former secretary of my brother Sen. Robert Kennedy. The car turned over and sank into the water and landed with the roof resting on the bottom. I attempted to open the door and the window of the car but have no recollection of how I got out of the car. I came to the surface and then repeatedly dove down to the car in an attempt to see if the passenger was still in the car. I was unsuccessful in the attempt. I was exhausted and in a state of shock. I recall walking back to where my friends were eating. There was a car parked in front of the cottage and I climbed into the backseat. I then asked for someone to bring me back to Edgartown. I remember walking around for a period and then going back to my hotel room. When I fully realized what had happened this morning, I immediately contacted the police.
On July 25, seven days after the incident, Kennedy entered a plea of guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. Kennedy's attorneys suggested that any jail sentence should be suspended
, and the prosecutors agreed to this, citing Kennedy's age, character and prior reputation. Judge James Boyle sentenced Kennedy to two months incarceration, the statutory minimum for the offense, which he suspended. In announcing the sentence, Boyle referred to Kennedy's "unblemished record" (even though Kennedy in fact had been involved in several previous traffic offenses) and said that he "has already been, and will continue to be punished far beyond anything this court can impose".
Kennedy's televised statement
At 7:30 pm that evening Kennedy made a lengthy prepared statement about the incident which was broadcast live by the television networks. Among other things, he said that:
- "only reasons of health" had prevented his wife from accompanying him to the regatta.
- there was "no truth whatever to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct" regarding Kennedy's and Kopechne's behavior that evening.
- he "was not driving under the influence of liquor".
- his conduct for the hours immediately following the accident "made no sense to [him] at all".
- his doctors had informed him that he had suffered cerebral concussion and shock, but he did not seek to use his medical condition to escape responsibility for his actions.
- he "regard[ed] as indefensible that fact that [he] did not report the accident to the police immediately".
- instead of notifying the authorities immediately, Kennedy "requested the help of two friends, Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, and directed them to return immediately to the scene with [him] (it then being sometime after midnight) in order to undertake a new effort to dive down and locate Miss Kopechne".
- "[a]ll kinds of scrambled thoughts" went through his mind after the accident, including "whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area", "whether some awful curse actually did hang over all the Kennedys", "whether there was some justifiable reason for [him] to doubt what had happened and to delay [his] report", and "whether somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might in some way pass from [his] shoulders".
- he was overcome "by a jumble of emotions - grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock".
- having instructed Gargan and Markham "not to alarm Mary Jo's friends that night", Kennedy returned to the ferry with the two men, and then "suddenly jumped into the water and impulsively swam across, nearly drowning once again in the effort, returning to [his] hotel around 2 a.m. and collapsed in [his] room".
Kennedy went on to ask the people of Massachusetts for their "advice and opinion" as to whether he should resign, and ended by quoting a passage from his brother John F. Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage.
The medical examiner, Dr Donald Mills, was satisfied that the cause of death was accidental drowning. He signed a death certificate to that effect and released Kopechne's body to her family without ordering an autopsy. Later, on September 18, District Attorney Dinis attempted to secure an exhumation of Kopechne's body in order to perform a belated autopsy, citing blood found on Kopechne's skirt and in her mouth and nose "which may or may not be consistent with death by drowning". The reported discovery of the blood was made when her clothes were turned over to authorities by the funeral director.
A Pennsylvania court under Judge Bernard Brominski held a hearing on the request on October 20-21. The request was opposed by Kopechne's parents. Eventually Judge Brominsky ruled against the exhumation on December 10, saying that there was "no evidence" that "anything other than drowning had caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne".
The inquest into Kopechne's death took place in Edgartown in January 1970. At the request of Kennedy's lawyers, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
ordered that it be conducted in secret. The 763-page transcript of the inquest was released four months later. Judge James A. Boyle presided at the inquest. Among Judge Boyle's conclusions in his inquest report were the following:
- the accident occurred "between 11:30 p.m. on July 18 and 1:00 a.m. on July 19".
- "Kopechne and Kennedy did not intend to drive to the ferry slip and his turn onto Dike Road had been intentional".
- "A speed of twenty miles per hour as Kennedy testified to operating the car as large as his Oldsmobile would be at least negligent and possibly reckless."
- "For some reason not apparent from [Kennedy]'s testimony, he failed to exercise due care as he approached the bridge."
- "There is probable cause to believe that Edward M. Kennedy operated his motor vehicle negligently ... and that such operation appears to have contributed to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne."
Under Massachusetts law Boyle, having found "probable cause" that Kennedy had committed a crime, could have issued a warrant for his arrest, but he did not do so. District Attorney Dinis chose not to pursue Kennedy for manslaughter, despite Judge Boyle's conclusions.
The Kopechne family did not bring any legal action against Senator Kennedy, but they did receive a payment of $90,904 from the Senator personally and $50,000 from his insurance company. The Kopechnes later explained their decision to not take legal action by saying that "We figured that people would think we were looking for blood money."
On April 6 1970, Dukes County Grand Jury
assembled in special session to consider Kopechne's death. Judge Wilfred Paquet instructed the members of the grand jury that they could consider only those matters brought to its attention by the superior court, the district attorney or their own personal knowledge. Citing the orders of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Paquet told the grand jury that it could not see the evidence or Judge Boyle's report from the inquest (which at that time were still impounded). District Attorney Dinis, who had attended the inquest and seen Judge Boyle's report, told the grand jury that there was not enough evidence to indict Senator Kennedy on potential charges of manslaughter
or driving to endanger. The grand jury called four witnesses who had not testified at the inquest: they testified for a total of 20 minutes, but no indictments were issued.
Fatal Accident Hearing
On July 23 1969, the Registrar of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles
informed Senator Kennedy that his license would be suspended until a statutory hearing could be held on the accident. This suspension was required by Massachusetts law in any fatal motor accident where there were no witnesses. The in camera
hearing was held on May 18, 1970. It found that "operation was too fast for existing conditions" in the accident, On May 27 the Registrar informed Sen. Kennedy in a letter that "I am unable to find that the fatal accident in which a motor vehicle operated by you was involved, was without serious fault on your part", and that as a result, his drivers license was suspended for a further six months.
Significance and legacy
It is widely believed that the Chappaquiddick incident was the major factor in Kennedy's decision not to run for president in 1972. The case resulted in much satire of Kennedy, including a National Lampoon page showing a floating Volkswagen Beetle with the remark that Kennedy would have been elected president had he been driving a Beetle that night; this satire resulted in legal action by Volkswagen, claiming unauthorized use of its trademark.
Ted Kennedy challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in the 1980 U.S. presidential election. On November 4, 1979, CBS aired a one-hour television special entitled "Teddy" presented by Roger Mudd. The program consisted of an interview with Kennedy, interspersed with visuals. Much of the show was devoted to the Chappaquiddick incident. During the interview Mudd repeatedly questioned Kennedy about the incident, and at one point directly accused him of lying. During the interview, Kennedy also hurt himself by giving what was considered an incoherent answer to the question "Why do you want to be President?", and by calling the US-supported Shah of Iran "one of the most violent regimes in the history of mankind". "Teddy" is credited by several sources with inflicting serious political damage on Kennedy. The Senator went on to lose the nomination to Carter.
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