For the first time in fifty years, a member of the Kennedy family yesterday decided not to impose a mandatory minimum sentence on a man accused of a drug crime. Caroline Kennedy and eleven other jurors voted to acquit Nelson Chatman of selling crack to an undercover officer, in a case echoing one of her father's lesser-known political efforts.
It's not exceptional that a figure as well-known as Kennedy should serve on a Manhattan jury. During voir dire for the trial (during which attorneys from both the defense and prosecution ask potential jurors questions to determine if they're suitable), Kennedy was asked the standard questions, affirming that she hadn't been convicted of a crime, though she did know "a few people" with drug problems. (The Daily News noted one omission: "When asked if she or any member of her family had been a victim of a crime, Kennedy did not publicly mention the assassinations of her father and her uncle, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.") Over the next week, Kennedy acted as juror number seven, ultimately joining the unanimous opinion to acquit Chatman. The New York Post reported on Kennedy's last contribution.
Kennedy, 55, also smiled, slightly and politely, as jurors were individually asked by a clerk, “Is that your verdict?”
“Yes,” Kennedy said when it was her turn.
Had Chatman been convicted of the crime, in which he was accused of selling four $5 rocks of crack to an undercover officer, he faced a minimum of six years in prison.
In that way, the not guilty verdict strongly echoes one of the lesser-known acts of her father, John F. Kennedy. In 1956, four years before he took office, Congress passed the Narcotics Control Act, which strengthened the penalties and mandatory sentences first mandated under 1951's Boggs Act. One author dubbed the Narcotics Control Act "the most punitive and repressive anti-narcotics legislation ever adopted by Congress."
Over the course of Kennedy's presidency, he made it clear that he disagreed with that policy. During his 34 months as president, Kennedy pardoned or commuted the sentences of 575 people — including a large number of first-time offenders who'd received mandatory minimum sentences under the Narcotics Control Act.
The final list of pardons during the Kennedy administration, filed after his assassination.
At a blog for criminal attorneys, writer John Campbell describes Kennedy's action.
In 1963, President Kennedy assembled the President’s Advisory Commission on Narcotics and Drug Abuse to address the country’s drug problem. Recall, at that time, drug offenders were facing the mandatory minimums found in Narcotics Control Act of 1956. The Commission studied drug use and the laws pertaining to those who abused drugs. The Commission concluded that rehabilitation rather than retributive punishment was essential to addressing the problem.
President Kennedy’s issuance of pardons and his commutation of lengthy drug sentences indicated to Congress his desire for a change in federal sentencing for drug offenders.
There's nothing to suggest that Caroline Kennedy's decision in the Chatman case was motivated by anything but the facts at hand, of course. Unlike the cases considered by her father, the decision wasn't hers unilaterally — and unlike those cases, Chatman was never considered guilty of the crime. But for Chatman, the outcome is the same as for those others facing prison time for minor drug crimes, as is the family that helped make it happen.