Rulings in Skakel case offer each attorney a victory
By Denise Lavoie - Associated Press
Kennedy nephew Michael Skakel lost the battle to see the murder charge against him heard in juvenile court.
But as he faces trial as an adult for the 1975 bludgeoning of a Greenwich teenager, a few facets of the case still favor the defense: The evidence is more than 25 years old. Memories are fading. And the jury pool is made up largely of people who may be able to identify with Skakel's wealth and privilege.
Prosecutors have a few cards of their own to play: Two witnesses who say Skakel confessed. A murder weapon that came from the Skakel house. And a motive.
Skakel - whose father, Rushton Skakel Sr., is the brother of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel - lost a major decision Wednesday when Judge Maureen Dennis moved the case to adult court.
The defense had sought to keep the case in juvenile court, where Skakel would have faced a maximum of four years of detention, compared to the 10 years to life he faces in adult court.
Both Skakel and the girl he is accused of killing were 15 at the time. Martha Moxley lived across the street from Skakel in Belle Haven, an exclusive gated community in Greenwich. Her body was found under a tree on her family's estate on Oct. 31, 1975. She had been bludgeoned and stabbed with a golf club that was matched to a set owned by the Skakel family.
No arrests were made in the case for more than 24 years. Skakel was charged in January 2000 after an investigation by a one-judge grand jury.
For years, authorities had focused their attention on Skakel's older brother, Thomas, who was 17 at the time of the killing.
During pretrial hearings last year, prosecutors revealed one of the main reasons why their attention shifted to Michael: Two students at a private school for troubled youths said Skakel had confessed to killing Moxley while they were all in rehab in the late 1970s.
Skakel's defense lawyer, Michael Sherman, attempted to discredit both men during the hearing. He plans to go after them again at Skakel's trial.
"I thought their testimony was unbelievable, but I'm willing to let people judge for themselves," Sherman said.
A key witness who could have rebutted the men's testimony died last month. Joseph Ricci, the founder of the Elan School in Poland Spring, Maine, had insisted that Skakel never made any admissions while a student there.
Sherman said he will seek to introduce Ricci's grand jury testimony during the trial.
In cross-examining the two former Elan students, Sherman repeatedly used the passage of time to call their memories into question. Some defense attorneys believe the prosecution will have a difficult time convincing a jury that 25-year-old evidence is reliable.
"What you've got going for you is everyone's memory is very shaky . . . and everyone has talked about the case in the ensuing 25 years. So you have all kinds of contradictory statements in those years, and all of that helps the defense," said veteran New Haven defense attorney Hugh Keefe.
But prosecutors say they are not worried about the age of the evidence.
"We feel we have a good case, and we're ready to go with it. We haven't seen any real indication of memories fading," said Frank Garr, an inspector with the Bridgeport State's Attorney's office who has worked on the case for 25 years.
Prosecutors also have a theory for the killing: They contend that Skakel killed Moxley in a jealous rage after he saw her kissing his brother, Thomas, the night she was killed. Friends told investigators Michael had a crush on Moxley.
Even though Sherman lost the fight to keep Skakel's case in juvenile court, he believes he won an important victory - Dennis also ruled that the trial will be held in Stamford rather than Bridgeport, where prosecutors wanted to have it.
Greenwich defense attorney Phil Russell said keeping the case in Stamford means the jury will be picked from a wealthy area that includes Skakel's hometown of Greenwich. If the trial had been moved to Bridgeport, the jury pool would come from mostly working-class communities.
"It's an enormous benefit to the defense because at least the jurors will be familiar with and not appalled by some features of the lifestyle and habits of the people involved in the case," Russell said. "I think in Bridgeport, there would be an inherent hostility toward any member of the gentry looking for a fair trial."
Prosecutors are expected to renew their request to have the trial moved to Bridgeport.