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Chappaquiddick Incident

Updated: Aug 7, 2020




Fifty-one years ago, Friday, July 18th, 1969. the Chappaquiddick incident (popularly known as Chappaquiddick) was a single-vehicle car accident that occurred on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts some time around midnight between Friday, July 18th, and Saturday, July 19th. The accident was caused by Senator Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy's negligence and resulted in the death of his 28-year-old passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside the vehicle.


Kennedy left a party on the island at 11:15 p.m. Friday, with Kopechne. He maintained his intent was to immediately take Kopechne to a ferry landing and return to Edgartown, but that he made a wrong turn onto a dirt road leading to a one-lane bridge. After his car skidded off the bridge into Poucha Pond, Kennedy swam free. He maintained he tried to rescue Kopechne from the submerged car, but could not. Her death could have happened any time between about 11:30 p.m. Friday and 1 a.m. Saturday, as an off-duty deputy sheriff maintained he saw a car matching Kennedy's at 12:40 a.m. Kennedy left the scene and did not report the accident to police until after 10 a.m. Saturday. A diver recovered Kopechne's body from the car shortly before 9 a.m. Saturday. This clip features background on the Chappaquiddick Incident:



At a July 25, 1969 court hearing, Kennedy pled guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident and received a two-month suspended jail sentence. In a televised statement that same evening, he said his conduct immediately after the accident "made no sense to me at all", and that he regarded his failure to report the accident immediately as "indefensible".


A January 5, 1970 judicial inquest concluded Kennedy and Kopechne did not intend to take the ferry, and that Kennedy intentionally turned toward the bridge, operating his vehicle negligently, if not recklessly, at too high a rate of speed for the hazard which the bridge posed in the dark. The judge stopped short of recommending charges, and a grand jury convened on April 6, 1970, returning no indictments. On May 27, 1970, a Registry of Motor Vehicles hearing resulted in Kennedy's driver's license being suspended for a total of sixteen months after the accident.


This clip gives you a real life look of how the all the elements involved look up close, including the actual road and bridge that the accident took place on:



On the evening of July 25th, Kennedy delivered a speech about the incident, that was broadcast live by the three of the major television networks:



The Chappaquiddick incident became national news that influenced Kennedy's decision not to run for President in 1972 and 1976, and it was said to have undermined his chances of ever becoming President. Kennedy ultimately decided to enter the 1980 Democratic Party presidential primaries, but earned only 37.6% of the vote and lost the nomination to incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Nonetheless, Kennedy would continue to be re-elected as a Massachusetts senator and would go on to become the longest serving senator in U.S. history, nearly 47 years, and one of the most effective legislators in the history of the U.S. Senate.


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