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COM Prof Pleads Not Guilty in Vehicular Homicide

Robert Zelnick says he wasn’t negligent in fatal collision

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Robert Zelnick, journalism, Frost/Nixon, Boston University

Robert Zelnick will teach at the College of Communication as usual this semester while his case moves through the court. Photo by Fred Sway

A court entered a not guilty plea Friday on behalf of a distinguished former ABC journalist and BU professor facing misdemeanor charges of vehicular homicide and failing to yield after an October crash that killed a motorcyclist.

A pretrial hearing was set for Robert Zelnick, a College of Communication professor of journalism, on May 25 in Plymouth District Court.

“There was no negligence on my part,” Zelnick said in a recent interview with BU Today. “If I thought I had been negligent in this situation, I’d come forward and say, ‘I don’t know how I did something like this, but I did.’”

The October 7 accident occurred at the Route 3–Clark Road intersection in Plymouth as Zelnick was driving home after playing a round of golf. Police say he turned his 2006 BMW SUV left onto the on-ramp to Route 3, crossing the oncoming lane and into the way of the motorcycle driven by Brendan M. Kennedy. Kennedy, 26, crashed into the SUV and was pronounced dead at Jordan Hospital in Plymouth.

Alcohol was not a factor, police say. Zelnick, 71, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005, but said in the interview that it does not impair his driving and was not a factor in the accident. He has passed two driving tests since his diagnosis, he said. He has been ordered not to drive while the charges are adjudicated.

Both he and Kennedy had several driving violations on their records, according to the Boston Globe, which reported that Kennedy’s license was under suspension at the time of the accident because of three alleged driving violations in the previous 24 months. The Globe said that Zelnick’s infractions included two accidents in 2010, two between 2006 and 2007, four speeding stops from 2000 to 2002, and other stops for a right-of-way violation and failing to stop. Zelnick said in the interview with BU Today that those infractions were irrelevant in the current case, adding, “I have never had, until this time, a person who was injured while I was at the wheel.”

He acknowledged that Kennedy typically would have had the right of way. But he said witnesses would support his claim that he wasn’t negligent. He and his lawyer, Kevin Mullen, declined to elaborate, with Mullen noting that the police investigation of the crash is continuing. Zelnick did say that he did not see Kennedy in the oncoming lane as he made his left-hand turn.

He said he was very familiar with the area of the crash, having made the trip “700, 800 times, going back 10 years.”

Both COM Dean Thomas Fiedler (COM’71) and Zelnick said the journalism professor will teach as usual this semester while the case moves through the court. Fiedler said the situation “remains a personal one for Professor Zelnick and does not affect his COM responsibilities.”

Zelnick’s lawyer advised him not to give an interview to the Globe, which reported the story before Christmas, he said, but “I’m a journalist. My whole career has been in reporting facts. If there was any way that was humanly possible for me to discuss the situation with a journalist without getting into matters that clearly have to be held back for a later stage in the procedure, then I wanted to do that.”

Vehicular homicide carries a maximum punishment of up to two-and-a-half years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.

Zelnick won two Emmys for his journalism and has written four books. He was a foreign and Pentagon correspondent for ABC as well as executive editor of David Frost’s 1977 interviews with Richard Nixon. (Oliver Platt played Zelnick in Frost/Nixon, the 2008 film about the interviews.)

“This is a tragedy all around,” Mullen said, for Zelnick and for Kennedy’s family, who have “lost a family member.”

24 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

24 Comments on COM Prof Pleads Not Guilty in Vehicular Homicide

  • Carlitos Corazon on 01.23.2012 at 8:29 am

    “…Kennedy’s license was under suspension at the time of the accident… Zelnick’s infractions included two accidents in 2010, two between 2006 and 2007, four speeding stops from 2000 to 2002, and… stops for a right-of-way violation and failing to stop.”

    The perfect storm: a collision between an oft-ticketed motorcyclist driving on a suspended license, and an oft-tickedted, habitually unsafe driver at the wheel of an SUV. Frankly, neither one of these guys should have been on the road.

    When someone dies, except by an act of nature (tsunami, tornado, etc.) or at their own hand, someone else is always at fault, in some way. If Professor Zelnick is not, at least, partially responsible for this death, then the only conclusion that remains is that the motorcyclist committed suicide. Although some may describe riding a motorcycle in an urban setting as a “death wish”, I doubt this was his intention.

    Hopefully, the “facts” will come out in court… but I wouldn’t bet on it.

    • AKC on 01.23.2012 at 11:10 pm

      Wait, so if Prof. Z isn’t at all to blame, the only remaining conclusion is suicide? Suicide is an intentional act, and people accidentally cause their own deaths all the time. My own grandmother tripped and fell down the stairs, leading to her death. It was no one’s fault, but it certainly wasn’t suicide.

      • Carlitos Corazon on 01.24.2012 at 9:39 am

        Someone falling down the stairs is preventable by any number of means… (see response to Nick below). I think of suicide in a broader definition than most. If someone is driving drunk, and runs off the road and kills themselves, is that an accident? Nope, that’s pretty much suicide, as the decision to drink and drive is comparable to putting a gun to your head. What about the guy who dies while climbing Mount Everest? Did he intend to die? Nope, but he increased his chances many times over and could have prevented his death by simply not climbing. How about the armed criminal who is shot dead by the police? Is that an accident, suicide, or the police’s fault? See the problem?

        • AKC on 01.24.2012 at 10:50 am

          Sorry, you don’t get to change the definition of a word to suit your purposes. Intent is an inextricable element of suicide.

          • Carlitos Corazon on 01.24.2012 at 11:58 am

            Only in response to your query, did I say: “I think of suicide in a broader definition than most”. Obviously, that “most” includes you. As to “intent”… the mountain climber in my previous example did not intend to die, but he also didn’t intend to ensure a long life. Nevertheless, your definition of suicide – intentionally causing one’s own death – is the widely accepted one.

  • Jon on 01.23.2012 at 9:38 am

    “Vehicular homicide carries a maximum punishment of up to two-and-a-half years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.”

    I don’t know who is at fault in this terrible accident, but 2.5 years and $3k max for vehicular homicide, that ridiculous!!!! There are so many people who endanger other people’s lives on a daily basis with the way they drive. Accidents happen, but people need to be held accountable for the way they drive. Too many people feel they are entitled to it. We are so desensitized to its danger that we feel we can even multitask while doing it – texting, reading, putting on make-up, etc…

    • Overlord of the Freshmen on 01.23.2012 at 11:00 am

      Wow, so they’re saying negligent killing of another human being via vehicle is only penalized by a $3000 cost and 2.5 years in prison?! I would have thought it much worse…..

  • Nick on 01.23.2012 at 10:36 am

    This is a horrible accident, but the motorcyclist obviously had a suspended license for a reason. Our legal system had it right this time and had the motorcyclist obeyed the law, he probably would be still alive today.

    • Nick (a different Nick) on 01.23.2012 at 2:08 pm

      Are you saying that it is okay for students who jaywalk or cross against the light to be killed my motorists because they are breaking the law? By the way, the “legal system” has not yet ruled, but charges have been brought against the driver. We’ll eventually see if the system gets it “right.” I agree that they “had it right” by taking away Zelnick’s right to drive.

      • MC on 01.23.2012 at 4:10 pm

        I can’t see how you got that Nick said it was ok for the motorcyclist to be killed. The legal system had it right by suspending him in the first place. Too bad he didn’t obey the law!

      • Nick on 01.23.2012 at 8:08 pm

        No, wasn’t saying that it’s ok for jaywalkers to get killed by drivers. Jaywalking is much different than driving on a suspended license. The legal system got it right by suspending the motorcyclist.

    • Carlitos Corazon on 01.23.2012 at 4:07 pm

      Prof. Zelnick won’t spend a day in jail. He has a no doubt well-paid lawyer. And, who do you think is representing the motorcyclist? The state… and I doubt this case is much more than a nuisance to them. But Nick # 1, you’re right: If the motorcyclist had honored the suspended license, he would probably be alive today. However, it would just be a matter of time before Prof. Zelnick caused injury to another motorist.

      No matter what happens in court, Prof. Zelnick should do the right thing and take himself off the road. His driving record is simply atrocious. Otherwise, after his next “accident” – and there will be another one if he continues driving – someone will look at his “rap sheet” and wonder what this guy was doing with a driver’s license.

      • Everly on 01.23.2012 at 11:13 pm

        Why is “accident” in quotation marks? Are you implying that this situation occurred intentionally?

        • Carlitos Corazon on 01.24.2012 at 9:23 am

          No. I am simply not a big believer in “accidents” as most (99+%)are “anticipatable” and thus preventable. In fact, that’s why – as in this case – the courts use the word “negligent”… they are acknowledging that the event was preventable. The word “accident” is largely a way of externalizing fault. In some cultures, that externalizing is so ingrained that the language has changed to accomodate it. For instance, in Spanish, one doesn’t say “I knocked the vase off the table”. Rather, they say, “the vase jumped from the table”. Additionally, the currently in vogue phrase “an accident waiting to happen” recognizes that one has noted an unsafe situation that might lead to injury or loss.

          • Mark on 01.24.2012 at 1:13 pm

            Wow, Carlitos, you are just hell-bent on being right, all over this comments section, however flawed your arguments may be! Keep up the entertaining, convoluted work.

          • Carlitos Corazon on 01.25.2012 at 7:59 am

            Mark, I’m sorry if my answering others’ questions bothered you. I thought it the courteous thing to do. However, if you had given my comments more than a cursory glance, you would have noted that in two of those answers, I specifically acknowledged that the others’ comments were “right”:
            “But Nick # 1, you’re right:…” &
            “…your definition… is the widely accepted one.”
            It’s a shame you couldn’t expound on how my arguments were flawed. But, thanks anyway for, no doubt, investing a significant amount of time, thought, and effort in formulating your response. You really added to the discourse.

      • Jaci on 01.27.2012 at 11:37 am

        OK just to let every one know something this guy who killed my cousin NEVER ONCE SAID SORRY!!! HE STILL FEELS LIKE HE NEVER DID ANY THING WRONG!!! ALL WE WANTED TO HEAR WAS I AM SO SORRY! BUT HE DOESN’T CARE HE IS LIVING HIS LIFE LIKE THIS NEVER HAPPENED! Yes Brendan should have not been driving if his license was suspended but I really don’t think that that is the truth think there might be a mix up with another family member. This has been a terrible loss for my family! he was my best friend he would do anything for any one. I have an * year old son who does not have a father in his life and Brendan was the only father figure he ever new! So before every one starts talking crap about Brendan get ALL OF THE FACTS STRAIGHT! and well why wasn’t Zelnick’s license suspended for all his motor issues???

        • Aaron L'Heureux on 01.27.2012 at 12:01 pm

          He may have received legal advice that suggests he not apologize for the concern that it may appear as an admission of guilt. This is more complex than “he didn’t say sorry.” That said, I’m very sorry for your loss :(

  • What a disgrace on 01.23.2012 at 12:50 pm

    Zelnick’s driving record should have been a clear-as-day indication to himself and the the Registry of Motor Vehicles that he is a danger on the road. Four accidents over the course of four years is a clear indicator of recklessness, and everyone who knew about that record should have known that it was only a matter of time before he caused an accident which would cause injury. A speeding ticket here or there is one thing, but his driving record makes it obvious that he is not capable of operating a motor vehicle safely.

    The fact that Zelnick was legally allowed to continue operating his 4000+ pound machine in the face of this abhorrent history is a sad commentary on our society. Why would he remain entitled to drive, during which he was clearly a threat to society? Is driving a right which is a sacred element of American liberty? If there were any justice in the way the US transit system is regulated, Zelnick should have been taking public transit or hiring a driver to get around after his first couple accidents. Stricter laws regarding the revocation of driving privileges might prevent this accident, and many others like it.

    It’s people like Zelnick who I most fear, whether I’m driving my car or riding my bike…incompetent, and either unaware of that incompetence or possessing a sense of self-entitlement despite it.

    • Ash on 01.23.2012 at 1:47 pm

      I completely agree with everything you just states. Although, he might be a great professor, I must say that it seems negligent on his behalf to be driving around when he continually shows he is incapable of driving safely in the city.

  • Jeff on 01.23.2012 at 4:51 pm

    It is a sad situation for both sides ( One side more than the other). I am just curious of the outcome. They credited the professors accomplishments and draw out the fact the victim was breaking the law. None of which limits his (Zelnick’s) legal responsibility. Zelnick states “There was no negligence on my part,”! Rather than spouting out about your innocence how about Commenting on your sincere empathy to the victim who died because of your vehicle.All of which can be achieved without admitting guilt.
    Curious to see how little punishment is given. That is if we ever hear about this story again. Lets just hope the Justice system lives up to it’s name..

    • Jaci on 01.27.2012 at 11:41 am

      I really hope justice is served. Brendan is not here to defend himself and give his side of the story I just hope that they call all the witnesses to the stand to tell what they saw! My family is still so heart broken about this. Brendan was know as “BK” in Plymouth and everyone new him he never had a problem with anyone he was just that great of a person!!!

  • Tom on 01.29.2012 at 3:00 pm

    Perhaps Brendan’s brakes failed. Did Zelnick fail to look both ways before crossing in front of him?

  • Jack on 02.01.2012 at 4:44 pm

    Anyone who knows that intersection could tell you it is physically impossible it was not Zelnick’s fault. Sure, technically maybe Brendan shouldn’t have been driving in the legal sense, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the circumstances of the accident or who was at fault. If a driver openly admits they did not see oncoming traffic before making a left hand turn directly into the path of another vehicle, that is the definition of negligence.

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