Skakel arraignment open to the public
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

Although a juvenile at the time of the alleged crime, the defendant in the 1975 murder of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley will be publicly arraigned, a state Superior Court judge ruled yesterday.

Noting that the state's juvenile justice system is designed to protect the identities of minors with the hope of rehabilitating rather than punishing them, Judge Maureen Dennis granted a motion by five newspapers that sought access to the arraignment of now 39-year-old Michael Skakel.

"The peculiar determinative facts of this case have extinguished the concern for protection of the confidentiality of the juvenile (defendant)," Dennis stated in a 15-page decision. "Due to (Skakel's) age, the underlying rationale of the confidentiality provisions which would strongly apply in other matters is inexplicable here."

Stamford attorney David Fein, who represented the newspapers in their motion, called the decision a victory for the public's right to know.

"We are gratified that the court opened the proceeding to the public," Fein said. "This is an important decision supporting the public's right of access to judicial proceedings."

In her decision, Dennis took notice of the intense public interest in Skakel, the son of one of the wealthiest families in Greenwich at the time of the murder and the nephew of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy.

"The somewhat unique circumstances of this case, including the nature of the crime, the passage of time and the extensive publicity this matter has received make these proceedings the focus of intense public interest and scrutiny," the Juvenile Matters judge wrote. "Thus, while the attendance of the press may not be indispensable to the disposition of these proceedings, their presence is more than a mere convenience. (The newspapers), in this situation, appear to be necessary parties or persons so that they may assist in the goal of informing the public."

Neither the prosecutor, State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict, nor Skakel's defense attorney, Michael Sherman, opposed the newspapers' motion.

The newspapers that made the Jan. 3 motion to be allowed into Skakel's arraignment are Greenwich Time, The (Stamford) Advocate, The New York Times, The Hartford Courant and Newsday. The Associated Press joined the motion on Feb. 15. Dennis stated in the ruling that her decision has opened up the hearing to all members of the public, "as space is available."

Also in the decision, Dennis is cognizant of the fact Juvenile Matters proceedings are normally held in a small room above a row of retail stores on Prospect Street in Stamford that cannot accommodate the expected crush of reporters.

"In light of this ruling, arrangements will be made to have this matter heard in an appropriate facility in this judicial district," she wrote.

Late yesterday afternoon, the state Judicial Branch issued a press release announcing that Skakel's arraignment will be held 2 p.m. Tuesday in the adult criminal courthouse on Hoyt Street in Stamford.

Skakel was to have been arraigned Feb. 8, but Dennis postponed the proceeding until after her decision on opening the hearing could be made.

In addition to the defendant's notoriety due to his family's affluence and relation to the Kennedys, the Moxley murder has drawn interest because in 1998 the then 23-year-old homicide became the focus of the state's rarely used, one-judge grand jury system.

During its 18-month term, the grand jury gathered evidence that included the testimony of 53 witnesses, including several members of the Skakel family. The probe concluded that sufficient probable cause existed to make an arrest, and Skakel was arrested on Jan. 19.

Skakel and his older brother Thomas Skakel had been previously identified as suspects because both had been with 15-year-old Moxley the night she was slain with a 6-iron from a set of golf clubs owned by the Skakel family.