Skakel judge faces tough decision
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

The judge who has been asked to open the doors to her juvenile courtroom so the media can cover the arraignment of Martha Moxley's alleged murderer has entered uncharted and possibly tricky waters.

That is why, some court observers say, Judge Maureen Dennis opted not to make an immediate ruling following a hearing Tuesday on a motion by a group of newspapers that seeks to suspend juvenile court secrecy rules so their reporters can be present when Michael Skakel is arraigned for the Greenwich girl's 1975 murder.

Although Skakel is now 39 and will almost certainly have his case transferred to adult court, he must by law be arraigned in juvenile court because he was 15 at the time of the crime.

During the hearing in the Juvenile Matters courtroom in Stamford, Dennis said that the matter put before her was a "case of first impression," meaning that there is no precedent in Connecticut for such a request. She could have ruled from the bench, but the judge delayed her decision until next month, at which time she will issue a carefully crafted written decision.

"We've never had this question addressed in Connecticut before, and we are unaware of any case like it in the country," said David Fein, the Stamford attorney who represented Greenwich Time, The (Stamford) Advocate, The Hartford Courant, Newsday and The New York Times at Tuesday's hearing.

Each state has secrecy laws for its juvenile court system because the primary goal of the system is to rehabilitate, rather than punish, youthful offenders. That is why no matter what way Dennis decides, her ruling is sure to be scrutinized by attorneys, judges and legal scholars.

"Within the juvenile system, you want to give kids a chance to straighten out," said Stamford attorney Daniel Weiner, who estimates 35 percent of his caseload involves Juvenile Matters cases. "To open it up and allow records and proceedings to be accessible to the public could permanently taint these kids for the rest of their lives."

Dennis' reluctance to rule from the bench meant that Skakel's arraignment - which had been slated to take place almost immediately after the hearing on the newspapers' motion - had to be postponed until March 14.

State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict, who sought the warrant that led to Skakel's Jan. 19 arrest for the death of 15-year-old Martha Moxley and who will prosecute Skakel should the case go to trial, said even though he was anxious to keep the case moving forward, he understands the judge's concerns.

"It's a decision that could have a lot of impact on future juvenile proceedings in Connecticut," Benedict said immediately after the hearing. He did not elaborate.

Skakel's arrest resulted from an 18-month investigation by a one-judge grand jury in Bridgeport. Now a resident of Florida, Skakel in 1975 lived across the street from Moxley, and was one of several youths who were with the victim the evening she was killed. The murder weapon has been identified by authorities as a 6-iron belonging to a set of golf clubs owned by the Skakel family.

One of the principal arguments Fein made on the newspapers' behalf was that there is no reason for the arraignment to take place behind closed doors because laws designed to protect children should not apply to a defendant who is now an adult. In addition, he argued that Skakel's defense attorney has invited public scrutiny on claims the state lacks a case to support the murder charge. Another point Fein made was that the case has attracted intense national media coverage. Skakel is a nephew of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy.

"We firmly believe that this case is unique, and a ruling to open the proceeding to the public should have little, if any, effect on other juvenile cases," Fein said yesterday.

A Greenwich defense attorney who frequently represents juveniles in court, Philip Russell, went a step further by categorically stating that a ruling in the media's favor would have no impact on future juvenile court cases.

"This case is so unusual the legal precedent would be limited to the bizarre facts of this case," Russell said yesterday. "I think it would take a better lawyer than me to convince a judge that a ruling in this case could be used to the detriment of a 14-year-old at some future time."