Michael Skakel Released on Bond Pending Retrial

After serving 11 years for the murder of Martha Moxley, Michael Skakel has been freed on $1.2 million bond pending a retrial.

Skakel, the nephew of Ethel Kennedy, was 15 years old in 1975 when Martha Moxley was murdered. The crime went unsolved for more than 20 years and suspicion had always focused on his brother Tommy. After Dominick Dunne and Mark Fuhrman re-ignited interest in the case through their books, suspicion shifted to Skakel and in 2000, he was charged with murder. He was convicted at trial and sentenced to 20 years to life.

Had Michael Skakel been charged in 1975 when the murder occurred, he would have been tried in juvenile court and if convicted, received a sentence of no more than two years. That's how juveniles were treated back then in Connecticut.

At the time of the crime, there was a five year statute of limitation on murder, which had expired by the time Michael was charged. In upholding the conviction, the Court overruled its own 1983 precedent. (More on that below.)

I'm glad Skakel's conviction was overturned, but I don't agree his conviction was the result of inadequate representation at trial. Here's what I think went wrong at the Skakel trial and on appeal. A recap: [More...]

The "star witness" against Skakel referred to by the media was Gregory Coleman, an unreliable, drug addict who waited 20 years before coming forward with his story that Michael told him he could get away with murder because he was a Kennedy, came forward to the media, not the police, and testified at the preliminary hearing he was high on heroin at the time of his grand jury testimony and his memory wasn't trustworthy. He died of a drug overdose before trial. Opportunity to cross-examine a witness at a preliminary hearing is far more restrictive than at trial. Since Coleman was dead by the time of trial, the defense wasn't able to fully cross-examine him. The Judge allowed his preliminary hearing testimony to be read orally to the jury with lawyers role-playing the parts of questioner and witness as the transcript of his testimony scrolled on the giant overhead screen like it was a movie--(I was in the courtroom that day.)

The testimony of other witnesses from the Elan school about Michael's purported confessions was unreliable and refuted by other witnesses at trial.

There was another suspect -- the tutor -- but the prosecution granted him immunity.

As to Tommy Skakel, who had been a suspect for 20 years, the jury didn't get to hear that he changed his story many years after the murder in interviews with Skakel family private investigators to say that the night Martha was killed, he and Martha had been mutually masturbating on the ground under the tree her body was found. Jurors in Michael Skakel's trial never heard about Tommy's statememt. Ultimately, he was given immunity to testify before the grand jury, and he did not testify at trial. His lawyer was a constant presence during the trial.

There was no physical or forensic evidence, no DNA, tying Michael Skakel to the murder. I do not believe the jury decided the case based on the evidence presented and refuted. I think it was the result of their sympathy for Dorothy Moxley, their dislike for the well-known Skakel/Kennedy families, and the overwhelming pre-trial publicity in Connecticut largely resulting from the recent publication of books by celebrity novelist Dominick Dunne, himself the father of a slain daughter, and former O.J. cop Mark Fuhrman, in which they proclaimed Skakel was the murderer.

Skakel was a troubled kid. He had an alibi. The prosecutors never proved the time of death. They didn't even try, instead opting for a range of between 9:30 pm and the middle of the night. Expert defense testimony, coming from experts originally hired by the prosecution, established the time of death around 9:30 pm--when Michael was at his cousin's house. Witness testimony was presented about unusually excessive and prolonged dog barking also occurring at this time. Defense witnesses testified to Michael's alibi. Michael's taped statement, in his own voice, in which he denied committing the murder was played to the jury.

Michael Skakel should never have been tried in adult court --the law in effect in 1975 precluded transfer -- and his trial and conviction ran afoul of the five year statute of limitations in effect at that time. The Conn. Supreme Court had to reverse precedent to uphold his conviction on appeal. The Court reversed its prior ruling of more than 20 years standing that an amendment excluding murder from the time limit could not apply retroactively.

The legislature in 1975 passed a law that imposed a five-year statute of limitations, or deadline, for prosecuting all crimes, except those punishable by death. The following year the legislature passed an amendment specifically exempting from the five-year statute of limitations all Class A felonies, including murder. The amendment took effect April 6, 1976 - nearly six months after Moxley was killed.

At issue in the 1983 state Supreme Court ruling was whether the amendment applied retroactively. The court ruled that it didn't, when it upheld the dismissal of murder and other felony charges filed against Wilbur Paradise in 1981, for a 1974 incident. "Upon reconsideration, we are persuaded that Paradise was wrongly decided," Palmer wrote in the Skakel decision. Chief Justice William J. Sullivan and Justices Joette Katz, Christine Vertefeuille and Peter T. Zarella concurred.

If the defendant was a Joe Schmo no one ever heard of, would the decision have been the same? Or did the court want to affirm Skakel's conviction so badly, it was willing to reverse its own precedent to do so?

Who is Michael Skakel? According to support letters at sentencing:

Rushton Skakel, Michael's father and the brother of Ethel Kennedy, "beat him so often that he often slept in his closet. Once his father fired a rifle at him while hunting."

A recovering alcoholic himself for the past 17 years, Skakel worked in a homeless shelter in the Bronx after meeting Mother Teresa. "He also has spoken to youths about substance abuse and formed a nonprofit group with the former manager of the band Aerosmith that traveled to Russia to educate and promote Alcoholics Anonymous."

"While working for AmeriCares, Skakel visited the Dominican Republican after a devastating hurricane helping deliver emergency medical supplies."

"A friend who is a teacher in New York described an incident in which Skakel quietly fixed the roof of a poor woman's house."

He was a model father whose three year old son adored him.

Skakel was 15 at the time Martha Moxley was murdered. He underwent drug treatment, sobered up, and had no criminal history as an adult.

As to preferential treatment because he's related to the Kennedys, I think it's more likely that had he not been related to the Kennedys, he would have not have been charged at all, and if charged, not convicted.

Here's my compendium of trial related news articles in 2002 and pre-trial articles from 2001. (I suspect most links are dead, but the titles alone explain the chronology of the case). TalkLeft's coverage since 2002 is accessible here.

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    Thanks for the post (5.00 / 3) (#1)
    by Dadler on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 01:42:37 PM EST
    As always, you offer and objective and rational take. IMO, this case is done. I don't think Skakel will see another day in prison. But, as usual, I could be wrong.

    The basis for Judge Dennis' (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by KeysDan on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 03:02:19 PM EST
    transfer of the case from Juvenile Court to Superior Court always struck me as weak--and unfair.  The ruling hinged more on the dilemma of what to do if  (if not, when) he was convicted  than on trial as a juvenile as the 1975 law suggested.  

    The judge seemed focused on the availability and suitability of the Connecticut institutions to handle a convicted adult---the Department of Children and Youth Services prohibited the placement of anyone over the age of 18.  This "housing" concern,, in my view, seemed to outweigh in the judge's mind the injustice o Skakel facing a jury as well as sentencing as an adult.  

    Quite amazing you remember that KeysDan. (5.00 / 2) (#4)
    by fishcamp on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 10:11:03 PM EST
    Michael was among the throngs of the Kennedy clan that came to Aspen every ski season for years until nobody would rent to them due to their destructive tendencies.  The Aspen Ski Co. called upon me to ski with them since I was Catholic, an ex-ski team guy, and not affiliated with the Skico.  They  were wild, sincere, and fun.  He seemed as normal as the rest of them, but it was a different normal. It was easy to get swept into their ideas due to their ideals.

    Echoing Dadler, often a release on bond, (none / 0) (#2)
    by Peter G on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 01:58:11 PM EST
    after serving years in prison, presages a time-served deal in the works, or even a dismissal by the State because the case has become untriable.  Any other indications that either of those hypotheses might be true here?

    Seems like (none / 0) (#5)
    by Mikado Cat on Fri Nov 22, 2013 at 02:59:32 AM EST
    there was an eagerness to punish somebody in a lot of older cases. Maybe juries were more inclined to believe what police and prosecutors told them.