Former baby sitter takes stand
By Kevin McCallum - Stamford Advocate
NORWALK -- Michael Skakel's defense team launched a three-pronged attack on the prosecution's case yesterday, offering testimony bolstering his alibi, contradicting claims that he joked about the crime at a party and painting a brutal picture of life at the school where Skakel allegedly confessed to killing Martha Moxley.
Highlighting the second day of the defense's case was the much-anticipated testimony from former Kennedy baby sitter Marisa Verrochi, who had an affair with Michael Kennedy beginning when she was 15.
The defense called the 24-year-old Florida resident to refute earlier testimony from a South Boston model that Skakel joked about the crime during a party.
Earlier in the week, Geranne Ridge testified that Verrochi stayed in her condominium for about three weeks in 1997, during which time Skakel attended a party thrown by Verrochi. Ridge claimed she overheard Skakel make the jesting remark, "Ask me why I killed my neighbor."
During cross-examination, however, Sherman sought to damage Ridge's credibility by suggesting she did not hear the context of the remark and fabricated her account of the evening "to try to appear to be knowledgeable."
Verrochi contradicted the earlier testimony, saying she did not recall ever being in the presence of Skakel and Ridge.
When confronted in Florida about the claims by Chief Inspector Frank Garr, Verrochi said she had no idea what he was talking about.
"He kept telling me there was a party that I was at with my friends, and that Michael Skakel was there," Verrochi said. "But I don't recall that."
In the hopes of demonstrating Verrochi's loyalty to Skakel, State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict briefly cross-examined her about how she came to befriend the 41-year-old Kennedy cousin.
Verrochi said she met Skakel through Michael Kennedy when she was 15, not long before Skakel started working as a driver for Kennedy.
She agreed that Skakel "took (her) under his wing" during "particularly distressful circumstances" and that "he protected (her) from the situation as best he possibly could."
The situation Benedict alluded to was Verrochi's affair with the married Kennedy. The sixth of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children, Kennedy died in 1997 in a skiing accident in Colorado.
No mention was made of another aspect of Ridge's testimony dealing with what she called the "paradox" that Skakel was suspected of killing one attractive 15-year-old girl, then years later came to the rescue of another.
Skakel is accused of bludgeoning his neighbor to death with a golf club in Belle Haven in 1975.
The former students of the Elan School who testified after Verrochi may have done the most serious damage to the prosecution's case to date.
Sarah Petersen, a cook from Key West, Fla., testified that she witnessed the brutal treatment Skakel received at the school, and how it might have influenced his statements about Moxley's murder.
Skakel stopped his initial denials of his involvement only after he was repeatedly beaten in a boxing ring, she said.
"The only time that he said he couldn't remember was after long hours of torture," she said.
More specifically, however, Petersen called into the question the credibility of one of the key prosecution witnesses, John Higgins. Higgins earlier testified that he heard Skakel confess one night while the two of them were sitting on a dormitory porch.
But Petersen said Higgins cannot be trusted.
"I found him to be a mean-spirited person who really enjoyed seeing what kind of trouble he could cause in your life," she said of Higgins.
Higgins acted as a "P.O.," or personal overseer, for Skakel after he was returned to the drug and alcohol rehabilitation school following an escape.
"John Higgins seemed to really like making Michael Skakel's life miserable," Petersen said.
Another former Elan student, South Carolina resident Michael Wiggins, also recalled the meeting during which Skakel was confronted about why he ran away from the school, and why he killed his neighbor.
Skakel denied the crime when questioned by school founder Joe Ricci, but after repeated beatings said he did not recall the evening, Wiggins said.
Wiggins said he was the subject of a 12-hour meeting of his own, and that they tried to get him to admit to being a coward, he said.
Earlier in the day, Sherman put Georgeann Skakel Dowdle on the stand to testify about the night of the murder. The sister of James Dowdle, Georgeann Skakel Dowdle said she recalled her brother returning to their backcountry Greenwich home with the Skakel brothers around 10 p.m. on the night of Oct. 30, 1975.
During cross-examination, however, she said could not recall ever seeing the group -- just hearing them -- and she was not able to say if Michael Skakel was among them.
Sherman said he intends to call to the stand a memory expert and more former Elan students today.