Mugging Victim Emily Kennedy Wrestles with Purse Snatchers and Then with Her Conscience

updated 12/13/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/13/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was the night before Thanksgiving, and Emily Kennedy, 25, was walking Hogan, her Gordon setter, down New York's Fifth Avenue. Suddenly three teenagers stepped out of the shadows. "Hey, lady, how's it going?" taunted one. Before she could reply, he snatched her purse—which contained $120—and ran. Kennedy, who is a daily jogger, sprinted off in hot pursuit. Four blocks away, on 92nd Street, she caught one of the kids and grabbed him. A cab driver and four passersby seized the other youths—all of them under the age of 15—and held them until police arrived. Kennedy recovered her purse and her money, and within a few days she was philosophical about the incident. "I consider myself lucky that they were apprehended so quickly and that my wallet was recovered," she said. "I was reassured and glad that people helped out."

Minor street crimes are unfortunately common in Manhattan, and New Yorkers generally greet such stories with a sympathetic yawn. But this crime kicked up a storm for two reasons. First, Emily Kennedy is the wife of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 28, the son of the assassinated Senator. Second, she told police at the scene of the crime that she would not press charges against the youths. To the city's tabloids, the incident smacked of knee-jerk liberalism and the coddling of criminals. "Emily Kennedy Lets Muggers off the Hook," screamed the Post headline; "3 Mugged a Kennedy...and Went Free," blared the Daily News.

Unfortunately, in newspaper wars truth can sometimes be the first casualty. Kennedy, who is a Legal Aid lawyer in Brooklyn, had only initially declined to press charges. But then she discussed the incident with her husband, who happens to be an assistant district attorney in Manhattan and the victim of three mugging attempts. Two hours later she informed the police that she had changed her mind. "Emily asked me if I thought it was the best thing to do," recalls Kennedy. "We talked about it, and we agreed on it, and she called and said she was going to press charges."

Like the vast majority of New York's Legal Aid lawyers, Emily is now on strike. But the $21,000-a-year defense attorney denies that her change of heart means that she is turning prosecutorial. "My first thought was, they're just kids, and they're probably from the neighborhood, and their parents are probably friends of ours," she said. "But then I thought, it's probably best to make them realize that they can't just do this and get away with it. I have pretty much faith in the system. I don't want to scare the wits out of them, I just want them to learn a lesson." The three youths have been arrested and charged with juvenile delinquency and grand larceny.

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