Michael Skakel Up For Parole
Martha Moxley and her neighbor Michael Skakel, nephew of Ethel Kennedy, were both 15 in 1971, the year Moxley was murdered. No one was charged with the murder until 25 years later. Skakel, then age 40 was charged, tried and convicted as an adult. He was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of 20 years to life. He is now 52, and having served 10 years of the minimum 20 year sentence, he is eligible for parole in April. A parole hearing is scheduled for October 24. The Moxley family is objecting. Mrs. Moxley wants him jailed for life.
At the time Martha Moxley was murdered, and until 1976, CT had a five year statute of limitations. In 2010, in affirming Skakel's conviction, the CT Supreme Court overruled precedent of more than 20 years, and held the 1976 amendment could apply retroactively to Skakel. Here is the 89 page majority opinion. Skakel's petition for cert to the U.S. Supreme Court, written by former Solicitor General Ted Olson, was denied. [More...]
Skakel maintains his innocence. Nonetheless, he told a court reviewing his sentence this January, that "he prays for Moxley’s mother every day."
In my view, having closely followed the pre-trial and trial proceedings, and attending a day of the trial, the evidence against Skakel fell far short of reasonable doubt.
The most objectionable evidence in the case was the prior testimony of Gregory Coleman, an unreliable, dead drug addict who waited 20 years before going to the media with claim that Skakel had confessed to him while they were in rehab together as teenagers. He claimed Skakel had told him he could get away with murder because he was a Kennedy. Before he died, Coleman testified at the grand jury, and then, at a later hearing, acknowledged he was high on heroin at the time of his grand jury testimony, and testified his memory wasn't trustworthy. He died of a drug overdose before trial.
Even though the defense was unable to cross-examine Coleman at trial, the court allowed his prior testimony to be orally read to the jury, with lawyers role-playing the parts of the prosecutor asking the questions and Coleman. As the lawyers read the testimony aloud in front of the jury, the transcript of Coleman's testimony scrolled on a giant overhead screen like it was a movie. (This happened the day I attended the trial.)
While the defense had the opportunity to cross examine Coleman at a pre-trial hearing, that's not enough. The issues at preliminary and suppression hearings are far more limited than at trial, the scope of permissible questioning is restricted, and for strategic reasons, the defense may decide to save some things for trial, not expecting the witness to die and become unavailable before then.
Other incriminating evidence came from a former suspect granted immunity (the tutor) and other residents of the drug rehab program, whose testimony of purported confessions by Skakel were disputed by other witnesses.
There was no physical evidence or DNA tying Skakel, who had an alibi, to the crime. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime, and over the years, there had been multiple other suspects, including the tutor and Skakel's brother.
Here's the view of dissenting judge Richard Palmer, a former prosecutor, who would have granted Skakel a new trial in the 2010 appeal based on newly discovered evidence. He wrote in his 103 page dissent:
[T]he testimony that was used to convict the petitioner... consisted almost entirely of equivocal admissions by the petitioner and one dubious confession that he allegedly had made while he was a student at Elan School, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility for troubled adolescents located in Poland, Maine. Moreover, there was no physical evidence connecting the petitioner to the crime and no eyewitnesses.
In light of the relatively weak evidence adduced by the state and the comparative strength of the newly discovered third party culpability evidence, I am convinced that that new evidence, at an absolute minimum, gives rise to a reasonable doubt about whether the petitioner had murdered the victim. I therefore am persuaded that, if the jury had considered the Bryant evidence together with the original trial evidence that it did consider, it is very likely that the verdict would have been different.
The Judge has denied Skakel's motion for a new trial based upon grounds that included: the prosecution's withholding of a sketch of the suspect near the scene of the murder who allegedly resembled the tutor who was formerly a suspect, and the admission at trial of the dead drug addict's testimony at pre-trial hearings -- even though, among other things, he acknowledged he was high on heroin during his grand jury appearance.
The Judge also rejected the defense argument that the prosecution was wrong in closing to flash "subliminal messages to the jury" -- by using computer enhancement techniques to morph Martha Moxley's dead body into a photo of her as the vibrant, attractive 15 year old girl that she was before her death.
There was a tremendous amount of negative pre-trial publicity in the case, fostered primarily by the late Dominick Dunne, whose own daughter had been murdered years before and who became friendly with Mrs. Moxley, and the notorious former O.J. cop Mark Fuhrman, both of whom wrote highly publicized books claiming Skakel was guilty. A prosecutor in the case said of Fuhrman's book and planned movie:
"Every piece of information he had we had months in advance of the book coming out," [John] Benedict said. "He's trying to take credit for things he simply did not do."
The difference was the jury wasn't exposed to the state's information until trial, while the entire community was exposed to Fuhrman and Dunne's claims before then.
In the courtroom, the Moxleys were surrounded by well-wishers, and sat behind the prosecutors next to the jury box. This happens in all cases, but the jury's proximity to the victims' family and distance from the defense seemed pronounced to me the day I was there. I sat on the defense side, behind the Skakel family, on the far side of the courtroom from the jury. It seemed to me the jurors frequently looked at the Moxleys, but were completely oblivious or uninterested in Skakel and his family of supporters.
The other faux meme that was prevalent at the time was that if Skakel were anyone other than a Kennedy, he'd have been charged convicted years before. I think the opposite is true: Had Skakel not been a Kennedy, he wouldn't have been charged or convicted at all. Interestingly, the Kennedy side of the family didn't come out with a book about Skakel's innocence until after the trial, and attended very little of the trial.
I think Skakel absolutely should be granted parole. He's been a model inmate for 10 years. He has always maintained his innocence, and parole shouldn't be conditioned on his refusal to admit guilt. He has shown compassion for the Moxleys, saying he prays for them every day. Here is an informational brochure on parole in CT. Here are the Board's FAQ.
It's time to let Michael Skakel go home. The parole board says on its website:
The mission of the Board of Pardons and Paroles is to facilitate the successful reintergration of suitable offenders into the community.
While the feelings of the Moxley family should and will factor into its decision, as will the seriousness of the offense, the parole board should follow its guidelines and also consider: Skakel's conduct in prison; the programs he's taken; his lack of disciplinary violations; the lack of evidence to suggest he is a danger to the public if released on supervision; his lack of criminal conduct in the 25 years between the murder and his arrest; his young age at the time of the offense; and his expressions of sympathy for the Moxley family and the tragedy they have suffered.
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