Sigh. It's been forty years since Mary Jo Kopechne's death. Since good ol' Uncle Ted took the last ferry outta Martha's Vineyard, it hardly seems pertinent anymore. And why would Jetta, whose politics are somewhere Left of Michael Moore's, even care about the case, given all the more recent meaty fare provided by the Bushes? But everyone loves to hate the Kennedys, no matter what their political persuasion. So, what the hell.....
The book Jetta was referring to was "Death at Chappaquiddick" by Richard L. and Thomas L. Tedrow. The book reads like an illegitimate 1970's offspring of the RNC and Jack Anderson's investigative journalism boiler room. It contains occasional contradictions, and sentences like: "After viewing the scene there is no question but that we were right." No doubts there, no sirree! Nothing like a scientist would write: "on the one hand; but on the other hand." Just the facts, and a whole lot of speculation, presented wide-eyed and without doubts.
To me, the simpler the story, the more credible. It doesn't help that the instant Ted Kennedy got out of the car he started to embroider his story and that everyone started embroidering the story too. There was lots of speculation regarding his movements, and whether or not he and Mary Jo were having sex, or whether there was a proper autopsy, or not. It just confuses matters. Simpler answers; closer to truth!
To me, it appears that, very late at night, Ted and Mary Jo were trying to get to the beach. They had both been to the beach and across the bridge several times earlier that day, but critically, they had both been driven across the bridge, and neither one had tried to drive across the bridge themselves. Ted was likely driving, and too fast, and in a sleepy or drunken state, across a narrow wooden bridge without guardrails that angled left. He either rolled the car, or it sailed into Poucha Pond (depending on speed).
Since the car rolled right, Mary Jo was unable to escape immediately. She found an air pocket and survived, perhaps for several hours, before suffocating. She was never able to either locate an exit, or couldn't force one.
Meanwhile, Teddy panicked. I don't believe he tried to rescue her, and probably gave up hope immediately. He didn't try to rouse people living nearby (strangers of unknown loyalties). Instead, he walked a couple of miles back to gather his lieutenants and try to figure out what to do. (The impulse of politicians to first figure out a story and then alert the public is very, very strong. For example, when Dick Cheney shot his friend on Feb. 11, 2006, he too felt the irresistible urge to circle the wagons first).
So, in the ensuing hullabaloo, what was the key factor? Massachusetts law regarding involuntary manslaughter states:
As with voluntary manslaughter Massachusetts statutory law does not define involuntary manslaughter. Rather, Massachusetts common law, as pronounced by the courts, provides the definition for involuntary manslaughter:Now, as asinine as it was not to have mounted an effective rescue effort, Teddy Kennedy probably could not have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter because of that. A strong rescue effort could have jeopardized his own life in the murky darkness. He may not have even realized that she could have survived a long time, trapped in the car.
One can commit involuntary manslaughter through:
(1) an unintentional killing occasioned by an act which constitutes such a disregard of the probable harmful consequences to another as to be wanton or reckless; or
(2) an unintentional killing resulting from a battery.
The first theory under which a person may face conviction for involuntary manslaughter requires an unintentional, yet unlawful killing resulting from the wanton or reckless conduct of the defendant. This theory of involuntary manslaughter is sometimes called "Welansky manslaughter," after the 1944 case in which the owner of a nightclub was convicted of involuntary manslaughter when a fire in his club caused the death of over 400 patrons. That case also established that wanton or reckless conduct includes both affirmative acts and failures to act where a duty to act exists. Such acts or omissions must embody a disregard for the probable harmful consequences to another. The conduct must involve a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another. The law requires that the defendant have knowledge of the circumstances and the intent to do the act that caused the death, and also requires that the circumstances presented a danger of serious harm such that a reasonable man would have recognized the nature and degree of danger. Wanton and reckless conduct is distinct from negligence or gross negligence for which, in the common law of Massachusetts, there is no criminal liability.
The second theory on which a defendant may face conviction for involuntary manslaughter requires that the defendant commit a battery, not amounting to a felony, which causes death. A person who uses a level of force against another that is likely to cause harm and which produces death is guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The law requires that the prosecution establish that the defendant knew, or should have known that his conduct created a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm would result to another. This means that the same standards of proof apply to both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.
The punishment for both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, as set by statute, is the same. The maximum sentence for an involuntary manslaughter conviction is imprisonment for twenty years, except in circumstances where the voluntary manslaughter involves explosives or infernal machines, in which cases the maximum punishment is life imprisonment.
But involuntary manslaughter (theory 1, above) because of driving too fast, or driving recklessly? Now people get convicted all the time because of that! So, the cover-up that followed was directed mostly, even single-mindedly, to ensuring that no testimony regarding the car's speed, or reckless driving, was ever entered into the official record. Because that path led directly to jail.
As it was, Ted's path was hellacious enough. In the ensuing tempest, his wife Joan suffered a miscarriage. Lots of suffering for everyone involved.
It's amazing, really, how much latitude the authorities will give to people who DO NOT rescue people under their care, particularly when those people have high standing in the community.
I remember when I was going to U of A in Tucson, a professor (whose name I can't quite recall), who had once been at Tucson but currently lived in Pennsylvania, returned to Tucson for a Christmas visit. He, his wife, and a grad student friend, went into the Galiuro Mountains for an overnight camping trip. Heavy rains soaked them all, and a winter chill descended. Soon, the professor was faced with the prospect of both the ill-clad grad student and his wife suffering hypothermia. He decided he could rescue only one, so he bundled his friend into a cave and walked out of the wilderness with his wife. The wife survived; the grad student died.
I never believed that the professor couldn't have made a stronger effort to save the grad student, but the authorities did. To me, it sounded like involuntary manslaughter, having failed to ensure that the party took reasonable precautions against bad weather. No matter. Case closed.
For your family's peace-of-mind, be careful regarding the social status of your companions before undertaking hazardous activities. Caveat inferior!
(Hey, I wonder if Andrew can get away from his professorial duties and wouldn't mind taking a glacier walk with me on a nice, warm day if I get back to NZ sometime soon? There are crevasses, and falling rocks, and all, I know, but.....)
Now, to talk Chappaquiddick over with Jetta and figure out her take on the 40-year-old matter....