Skakel Case Continues To Confound
Jurisdiction, detention facilities
and statute of limitation at issue
Kellie A. Wagner - The Connecticut Law Tribune

Michael Skakel, charged with the 1975 bludgeoning death of Greenwich, Conn., neighbor Martha Moxley, has been left on a sort of judicial sandbar, waiting to either walk to the shores of freedom as a juvenile offender or be swept up by the incoming tide of sentiment to try the 40-year-old as an adult, with adult consequences.

His fate is in the hands of Judge Maureen Dennis, in the aftermath of an Oct. 20 hearing on whether Skakel should face charges as an adult or a juvenile. Moreover, Dennis' decision has become even more complex because of a public declaration by prosecutors that, if she decides to keep the murder case in juvenile court, the state will drop its prosecution.

Dennis has until February 20 to render her decision.

Repeatedly contending that Skakel probably would not be prosecuted should Dennis decide to try him as a juvenile, Connecticut State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict said Skakel should be transferred because of the seriousness of the murder charge.

"There is no viable remedy other than adult court," Benedict told Dennis at the hearing held in the Stamford/Norwalk Judicial Court. The session was requested by defense attorney Michael "Mickey" Sherman to discuss the results of a sealed probation report ordered by Dennis.

Also still a key issue, according to Stephan E. Seeger, part of Skakel's defense team along with Sherman and Jason Throne, is a statute of limitations in 1975 that prohibited the prosecution of a crime, even murder, after five years.

Seeger said that the statute was clear in its intent, and that should Skakel be transferred to superior court, one of the defense's first moves would be to file a motion to dismiss.

"Nobody seems to be concerned about the statute of limitations", Seeger said. "The strict application of the law should render a positive factor toward" Skakel.

TRANSFER LIKELY

Experts in juvenile law say that Dennis is likely to transfer Skakel's case to superior court, and that Benedict's threat could affect Dennis' decision.

Ron Gold, senior assistant public defender for the capital defense and trial services unit and an expert in juvenile law, said Benedict's statements about not prosecuting Skakel, if Dennis decided not to transfer the case, put even more pressure on the judge.

"That is throwing extra weight on the judge," said Gold. "I'd be screaming and yelling if that was my case. Mickey's not a shrinking violet. I'm surprised he is not screaming.

"I've seen defense lawyers get beaten down all the time by judges who feel they can't let [a defendant] go," added Gold. "We are biased in this country against the defendant ... Judges are very concerned about ramifications of the decisions they make. I suspect Judge Dennis will probably be thinking about that . . . Come her re-appointment time, she could take a lot of heat in the legislature for why she let that guy go. I'm not saying that Judge Dennis will do that, but I know it runs through judges' minds."

Dennis ruled in August that there was reasonable cause to proceed with murder charges against Skakel in superior court and ordered the probation report as part of the transfer statute.

"It's not [Skakel's] fault," Sherman said of the case being prosecuted against his client some 25 years after the murder. "He has been around. The spirit of the judicial system [in 1975] was to treat juveniles. We're here in 1975. The burden should not be on us. The burden is on the state."

Christine Rapillo, head of the public defender's juvenile unit in Hartford, agreed with Sherman.

"It is not a situation where [Skakel] was on the run. They all knew where he was. It's not Skakel's fault."

SPECIAL NEEDS

During the Oct. 20 hearing, Sherman called Skakel a man with "special needs" and a "square peg that does not fit into a round hole" because of his age. Sherman drove home the point that currently there are no juvenile facilities suitable to treat or house Skakel.

The probation report's author, Stamford Juvenile Probation Supervisor Joseph H. Paquin Jr., testified at the hearing that he could find no such facilities in the state suitable for Skakel at his present age.

When asked by Sherman if he investigated out-of-state facilities for Skakel, Paquin said he had not, commenting that only the state Department of Children & Families has jurisdiction to place youthful offenders in out-of-state facilities.

Also testifying at the hearing were Clinton Roberts, president of Hartford's Alternative Sentencing Consultants; Joseph Arsenault, a deacon in Boston's archdiocese and a professor at Curry College, which Skakel attended; and former public defender Bernadette Coomaraswamy.

Roberts said he was asked by Sherman to investigate whether there were any in-state facilities that could treat Skakel if he were tried as a juvenile. Roberts testified that he interviewed members of the Department of Children & Families and the juvenile unit of the public defender's office in Hartford.

One facility he cited is Daytop, a residential institution run in Newtown by the APT Foundation, which could house juveniles over the age of 16. But Roberts said that he was not sure if the facility's program would suit Skakel's needs.

Coomaraswamy, now a magistrate in Wilton, asserted that the intent of 1975 juvenile statutes was to treat or rehabilitate youthful offenders, unless the safety of the community was at stake.

"I would not feel that [Skakel] was a danger in the community," she said, noting she had known Skakel since he was a teenager, before the 1975 murder.

Daniel Weiner, a Stamford juvenile specialist and a special public defender with the state, agreed that Skakel should be treated as a juvenile.

"I am fairly confident in saying that if [Skakel] was prosecuted in a timely manner, he would never have been [jailed]. It is wrong that he be treated as an adult simply because the state has dragged its heels in prosecuting the [Moxley] case."

Living a clean life during adulthood could be key to helping Skakel avoid trial as an adult: his defense attorneys argue that their client is not a danger to society and should therefore be tried as a juvenile. Skakel's attorneys contend that he has already reformed himself in accordance with the spirit of 1975 law by attending the Elan school in Maine, a private facility where many juvenile offenders were sent at the time.

The case, which has exploded into the national media spotlight, is one of first impression in many areas, and has legal experts on all sides scratching their heads as to which way to proceed.

"It's mental gymnastics," Roberts said a few days after the hearing. "No one seems to know which way to go."



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