Hearing to Determine if Skakel Sr. is Fit to Testify

By J.A. Johnson Jr.
(Staff Writer)
GREENWICH TIME (SEPT. 4, 1998 )

A competency hearing is to be held in Florida next week to determine whether former Greenwich resident Rushton Skakel Sr. is fit to testify before a Connecticut grand jury investigating the 1975 murder of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley, in which two of Skakel's sons are suspects. The Sept. 11 hearing has been scheduled as a result of a motion filed Wednesday in Martin County Circuit Court of Florida by the 74-year-old Skakel's attorneys, who claim their client suffers from health problems that would prevent him from testifying.

According to Martin County supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Tom Bakkendahl, Skakel could be jailed for contempt in Florida should he be deemed competent and still refuse to comply with the subpoena ordering him to appear before the grand jury in Bridgeport Sept. 21. It won't come to that if Skakel's attorneys have their way, however. Although neither of those attorneys - Richard Lubin and Robert Watson - returned calls to their office for comment, they state in their motion that their client is unfit to testify.

"Rushton Skakel Sr. has had long-standing health problems which bear directly upon his ability to give testimony in the instant matter," the motion states. "Currently, Mr. Skakel is being treated by three separate physicians. (We have) learned that Mr. Skakel's illnesses render him incompetent to testify."

In making the motion, the attorneys requested postponement of a hearing that had been scheduled for Tuesday morning, in which Judge John Fennelly was to decide the issue of whether Skakel, a brother of Ethel Kennedy, U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy's widow, was a material witness for the Moxley murder investigation.Tuesday's hearing was to be brief, expected to last about 10 minutes and not include arguments that were evidentiary in nature. But Skakel's attorneys said in their motion they need an entire day to present a case arguing their client's incompetence, which will include calling three of Skakel's doctors to the witness stand.

Martin County Assistant State's Attorney Robert Belanger, who plans to argue on behalf of Connecticut, said that according to Florida state law, all witnesses are presumed to be competent unless determined otherwise during a trial. "The question of competency should be an issue at trial and is something that should be decided only through an evidentiary ruling at trial," Belanger said. Even if Fennelly should find Skakel to be a competent witness, the prosecutor said, the murder suspects' father might not have to come to Connecticut to testify. He said that "as a compromise," the judge could have Skakel testify electronically from a Florida courtroom. "The judge could say to him, 'Unless you submit to a videotaped deposition or testify via closed circuit television, then you're going to get on a plane to Connecticut,' " Belanger said.

The Skakel family were neighbors of Martha Moxley when she was slain the evening of Oct. 30, 1975. Thomas and Michael Skakel, who were 17 and 15, respectively, at the time of the murder, were both with the victim prior to the crime. Officials have said the weapon used to bludgeon and stab the 15-year-old girl was a golf club from a set of clubs owned by the Skakel family. Attorneys for the brothers have maintained their clients' innocence.

Skakel's motion is being seen by officials connected with the Moxley investigation as a ploy to hinder the murder probe. "This is just a continuation of the saga of the Skakels not cooperating with this case," said Inspector Frank Garr, who heads the Moxley investigation for State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict. Garr and other state officials have for years accused members of the Skakel family of hindering the investigation because of their repeated refusals to be interviewed.

Thanks to J.A. Johnson Jr. for the article.