Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Martha Moxley Murder

Update January 18, 2001 to February 15, 2001

Skakel's attorney, Michael Sherman (CORBIS)
Skakel's attorney, Michael Sher-
man (CORBIS)

In January 2001, Michael Skakel's attorney asked the New York Supreme Court to impose a gag order on the divorce proceedings between Skakel and his wife Margot. The attorney, Michael Sherman, argued that if Margot Skakel were allowed to go public, it would jeopardize his client's right to a fair criminal trial. New York Supreme Court Justice George Cobb later rejected the motion, ruling that to impose such an order would "impinge upon Margot Skakel's right to free speech."

Sherman later played down the decision stating that he couldn't see it having an impact on his client's murder case. "It's not that big of a deal," he said. According to Sherman, Skakel's concern in requesting the gag order was not to keep his estranged wife from damaging his defense but to "minimize the gossip value" surrounding the case. To further complicate the matter, Margot Skakel has suggested that she is planning to write a tell-all book about her marriage. Neither Margot Skakel or her attorney will comment on what the book will contain, but many interested observers project that it will not only give an insider's view of the Kennedys, it will most likely include the story behind why her husband decided to expose Michael Kennedy's alleged sexual relations with an underage babysitter.

Even if it is nothing more than a chronicle of the couples' failed seven-year marriage, complete with family scandals, many observers, including Michael Skakel and his defense counsel, are anxious to see if Margot also includes details regarding Martha Moxley's murder and her husbands alleged involvement.

On January 31, 2001, Michael Skakel's worst fears were realized when Judge Maureen Dennis ruled that he is to be tried as an adult for the murder of Martha Moxley. Because of Skakel's age at the time of the murder, the case had previously been heard in juvenile court in Greenwich. Both victim and suspect were 15 at the time of the murder. Adult court was ruled as the proper venue for the trial, mainly because the state has no juvenile facility where it could send forty-year-old Skakel if he is convicted. "Under state law, a juvenile found delinquent can be committed to a state youth facility or a hospital or other institution but state facilities cannot accept anyone over the age of 18, and commitment to a mental institution would not be appropriate in this case," Dennis said. "The court further finds that the facilities of the adult criminal division of the Superior Court afford and provide a more effective setting for the disposition of this case."

Michael Skakel and his attorney have good reason to have the matter heard in juvenile court. As a juvenile, the maximum penalty he could receive under the law in effect in 1975 is four years. However, as an adult, the law sets a range of a minimum 10 years to life in prison. Prior to the Dennis decision Prosecutor Jonathan Benedict had stated that he would consider dropping the case unless it was transferred to adult court. He considered that Skakel faced such a small penalty in juvenile court that it would not be worth the trauma to Moxley's family to try the case.

In 1995, a state law was passed making many serious felony charges for juveniles 14 and over subject to automatic transfer to adult court. Dennis had ruled there was probable cause to allow the case against Skakel to continue. She has spent months considering the question of where Skakel should be tried. In a separate decision, Dennis refused to act on a motion to dismiss the charges, based on the statute of limitations, as Skakel has not been formally charged which renders any motion based on the statute of limitations premature.

On February 2, 2001 state Superior Court Judge John F. Kavanewsky Jr. was appointed to oversee what is expected to be what is arguably the state's highest-profile case in decades. Although Kavanewsky presides over most of the criminal dockets in Superior Court in Stamford, he will not necessarily preside over the actual trial himself. His prime function is to act as case-flow manager and assign portions of the case either to himself or other Superior Court judges. Three retired judges who regularly sit as trial referees in the Stamford courthouse could also be assigned to handle other portions of the Moxley murder trial case. They include Judge Martin Nigro, Judge Richard Tobin and Judge James Bingham. To date, no decision has been reached as to which judge will hear the trial. Kavanewsky is known by attorneys for making careful and unrushed decisions on the law. "He's very patient," Stamford attorney Matthew Maddox said. "I think particularly in this case, where there's anticipated to be a great number of defense issues, he's likely to tolerate and deliberate on every issue fairly carefully. Such caution might make the prosecution of Skakel's case lengthier than some may desire, but it also will provide a trial court record with fewer opportunities for a verdict to be appealed," Maddox said.

Retired Judge Martin Nigro, who serves often in the Stamford courts as a trial referee, would approach the case with similar care. But his vast experience overseeing such serious and high profile cases might allow him to decide on issues faster. Judge Bingham typically presides over the long daily dockets of lower-level crimes.

Judge Tobin was recently assigned to oversee a new domestic violence docket that has recently been implemented. Whoever presides, Maddox predicted that if a jury convicts Skakel of murder, "he'll be clobbered," by the sentencing judge. "It's a grisly murder, and there are a number of aggravating factors in the actual offense that might justify a long prison sentence."

Even though the prosecution has claimed a victory after having Michael Skakel's case transferred to an adult court, according to legal experts who have been following the case, it can expect to run into fierce resistance long before it calls the first witness. Skakel's defense team is expected to open its case with an appeal against the ruling that transferred Skakel's case from juvenile to adult court, followed by a challenge against every aspect of the state's case in what is expected to be an arduous pretrial process.

Court observers and legal experts with intimate knowledge of Skakel's case have pointed to previous battles over the numerous legal issues raised during the grand jury process that has brought Skakel to trial. Among these were issues regarding the admissibility of evidence, claimed privileged statements and records, and the competency of witnesses to testify. They agree that these issues will be kept alive and constantly revisited by the defense.

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Assistant State's Attorney Matthew Couloute, also attached to the case (CORBIS)

Attorney Emanuel Margolis has been following Skakel's case very closely since he has represented Skakel's older brother Thomas, once considered the prime suspect in the Moxley murder. During the grand jury investigation that began in 1998 and concluded early the following year with Michael Skakel's arrest, Skakel's defense has challenged the admissibility of such evidence as the testimony of witnesses who were in a substance abuse rehabilitation center with the defendant when Skakel allegedly confessed to murdering Moxley in October 1975. "Even though the defense lost those contests," Margolis said, "the issues at the time were viewed in the context of the grand jury and not a jury trial, where rules of evidence are more stringent."

Stamford criminal defense attorney Matthew Maddox agrees that the Skakel case will see a lot of legal issues revisited as it proceeds to trial. "I think it would be virtually reckless not to exhaust every issue again, and knowing the way Skakel's defense attorney handles cases," Maddox said, "I would be very surprised not to see him revisit and re-litigate every issue if for no other reason - particularly in a case of this magnitude and notoriety - than because he is very mindful of the record that's being kept for purposes of appeal."

Another grand jury issue expected to recur prior to trial is the admissibility of testimony and records of private investigators hired, to whom Skakel allegedly admitted having lied to police in 1975. Another point of contention could be whether the defendant's elderly father, Rushton Skakel Sr., has been rendered an incompetent witness by illness and psychological disorders. Skakel's defense attorney, Michael Sherman, said he would not disclose his defense strategy. "I'm not going to comment on what motions I'm filing until I do it," he said. Sherman also said he did not know yet if he would appeal the judge's ruling that sent Skakel's case to adult court. There remains the question of whether or not the transfer of the case from one court to another is even an appealable issue. According to Deputy Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano, the law as it existed in 1975 - and the law that has governed the prosecution of this case from the beginning - did not allow for the appeal of such transfers. Regardless, Sherman is expected to appeal against it.

According to attorneys on both sides, within the next two weeks, Skakel will be presented in Part B of state Superior Court in Stamford. This is the point at which Skakel's case is officially entered into the adult court record, and when the issue of bail can be discussed and Sherman will file his appearance as Skakel's attorney of record. The case will then be transferred to the court's Part A, which handles all serious felony prosecutions. A probable cause hearing will then be held in which a judge will determine whether the state's case is sufficient to warrant a trial. This hearing must occur within 60 days of Skakel's presentment. Often a formality waived by the defense, Sherman indicated he wants a probable cause hearing so he can have the opportunity to contest the state's evidence. If probable cause is found, Skakel will be asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If he pleads not guilty, the matter will be scheduled for pretrial hearings. Sherman said if there were to be a trial, he expected it would begin in six to ten months.

Michael Skakel's defense had previously dismissed witness testimony regarding his confession to Martha Moxley's murder as either fabrications or the unreliable recollections of witnesses who had attended drug and alcohol rehab with Skakel. On February 6, 2001, according to sources close to the case, there are other witnesses who are well acquainted with the defendant, one of whom is a relative, who claimed to have heard Skakel admit his involvement in the Moxley's slaying. In reply, Skakel defense attorney Michael Sherman has said that the alleged witnesses won't hurt his client's chances in front of a jury. "I haven't been made aware" of those witnesses, Sherman said yesterday, adding that if such witnesses were to testify at trial that they heard Skakel confess to the murder, "That doesn't change a thing." The anonymous sources did not reveal the identities of the witnesses and would not characterize them other than to say the witnesses would offer trial testimony similar to evidence provided in an earlier court proceeding. Although the sources said at least one of the potential witnesses is a relative, they would not specify how he or she is related to Skakel.

In an earlier hearing, two witnesses testified that Skakel had confided in them and admitted to having murdered his teenage neighbor on the evening of October 30, 1975. One of the witnesses, Gregory Coleman, testified that during a late night talk at Elan School in Poland Spring, Maine, Skakel admitted that he had "drove in Moxley's skull" with a golf club, before bragging, "I'm going to get away with murder - I'm a Kennedy." John Higgins, another former Elan School resident, testified that Skakel "related to me that he had been involved in a murder of someone." Higgins testified that Skakel had said that he had blacked out and "didn't know whether he did it and couldn't remember. Eventually he said that he in fact he did it." Both testimonies were given while Skakel's case was still in juvenile court. Juvenile court Judge Maureen Dennis cited the testimony of both Higgins and Coleman when ruling that the case merited a trial. The judge's ruling came despite Sherman's claim that Higgins had only come forward for financial gain, and that Coleman had previously admitted memory loss due to years of drug abuse.

On February 5, Superior Court Judge John Kavanewsky ordered Michael Skakel to appear at 10 a.m. on February 21 for arraignment at a courthouse within the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District. The courtroom for the hearing was not specified but could be located in either Stamford or Norwalk. Prosecutors are expected to argue that the hearing should be held in Bridgeport as they consider it to be the "proper" venue for Skakel's trial. Their argument is based on the fact that in 1975, when Martha Moxley was slain, Bridgeport was where Greenwich's serious criminal cases were heard.

According to Court TV publicist Ellie Jostad, Court TV is expected to seek permission to televise Skakel's trial. "Our plan is to apply as soon as a judge is assigned to for the trial," she said. If Court TV is successful in securing the rights to televise the trial, it should clear the way for the provision of a video feed to a room outside the courtroom where a larger of number reporters would have live access to the trial. At present, state law prohibits video transmissions from courtrooms unless the trial in question is being televised and the presiding judge allows the transmission.

Prosecutor Jonathan Benedict filed a motion on February 8, 2001 to reverse the decision that Stamford, Connecticut, was the "most appropriate venue" for Michael Skakel to stand trial. Benedict has requested that the trial be moved to Bridgeport, where it would have been held at the time of the murder as Stamford only began processing criminal cases in 1981. Skakel's attorney, Michael Sherman disagrees. "It's senseless. I don't think there's any reason for the change of venue," he said. "The crime occurred here. This is where the courthouse is. End of story." Some observers speculate that prosecutors feel jurors in working-class and heavily minority Bridgeport would sympathize less with Skakel than those in Stamford, a small city within a sea of white, suburban affluence. "In Stamford, you are going to get a jury that's closer to Skakel's background, versus Bridgeport, where you're going to get more of an inner-city jury pool," Hartford, Connecticut lawyer Joseph Moniz commented. "You clearly get a different jury panel in the two areas, and I'm sure that's behind each side's desire to have it either in Stamford or Bridgeport." But Sherman would not discuss any difference between the two juror pools, maintaining that the trial's location should be an open-and-shut issue.

As the date for his arraignment approaches, Michael Skakel has indicated that he isn't going to trial without a fight, or at least an appeal of the recent ruling that he should be prosecuted in adult court for the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley.

Because Skakel was only 15 at the time of Moxley's slaying, his lawyers have been continually wrangling with prosecutors since his arrest in January 2000 over whether he should be tried in adult or juvenile court. When Connecticut Judge Maureen Dennis ruled in the prosecutions favor, the issue seemed decided — but a notice of appeal filed on Wednesday, February 8th in Stamford Juvenile Court indicated that Skakel's lawyers aren't giving up.

The full appeal, which Skakel's lawyers expect to file Friday 10th, is expected to question the basic tenet of Dennis' decision. Her reasoning was based on the fact that Skakel must be tried in adult court because the state does not have a juvenile facility that can accommodate a middle-aged defendant. On the other hand Skakel's criminal defense attorney argues that the state's lack of proper institutions, and its 25-year wait in prosecuting the case, is not the fault of his client's.

The unique problem is that hardly anybody else has been in Skakel's situation. The type of court is also a bone of contention. If tried in adult court Skakel could face the maximum penalty for murder. In contrast, he would get a very small sentence if convicted as a juvenile. The victim's family sees the latest motion as an indication that Skakel's defense team doesn't have a case. In addition to arguing for the reversal of Dennis' ruling, Skakel's lawyers must also show good reason that the decision can be appealed at all.

A spokesman for the prosecution said they would move to dismiss the appeal, but had no comment concerning the legal issues involved. It is unclear whether Skakel will be arraigned as scheduled on February 21. Connecticut State Superior Court Judge John Kavanewsky Jr., administering the pretrial aspects of the case, ordered both sides to immediately file arguments regarding a stay of the arraignment. Sherman said he did not know how long a stay would last, but speculated that it would likely be related to the length of the appeals process.

As directed, Michael Skakel arrived at the Greenwich, Connecticut courthouse at 10am on February 21, 2001 for arraignment on the charge of murdering Martha Moxley. As Judge John Kavanewsky read the charges against him and informed him of his rights, Skakel stood quietly. Not only were the charges against Skakel formally made, the five-minute arraignment was also the first proceeding against him in adult court. Even though Skakel defense attorney Mickey Sherman had previously appealed the ruling, Judge Kavanewsky decided to proceed with the arraignment.

After the short arraignment defense attorney Mickey Sherman told Court TV "I didn't say I want to lay down and play dead, I intend to vigorously fight in that probable cause hearing." A probable cause hearing has already been held last year in juvenile court on the charges. Although Judge Maureen Dennis ruled that the state had enough evidence to charge Skakel, Sherman says that he thinks a new hearing may yield different results. "The probable cause hearing will bring the witnesses here," he said. "I don't think the judge will buy their testimony this time."

Skakel is not required to enter a plea until after the probable cause hearing. Connecticut law requires that such hearings occur within 60 days of arraignment, and all parties have agreed to an April 18 date for the hearing. A motion for a change of venue previously filed by the prosecution was also discussed at the arraignment. Both prosecutor Jonathan Benedict and defense attorney Sherman have filed motions in the matter, and Judge Kavanewsky has scheduled a hearing for February 28 to hear their arguments.

 

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