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Michael Skakel

Other Connecticut Murder Exonerations
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On October 30, 2020, prosecutors in Connecticut dismissed a murder charge against Michael Skakel, two years after the state’s supreme court ruled that Skakel had received ineffective assistance of counsel. Over the past 45 years, as it captured the nation’s attention, the Skakel case evolved into a morality tale and fierce legal struggle at the intersection of wealth, privilege and brutality.

The body of 15-year-old Martha Moxley was found under a pine tree behind her house in an exclusive section of Greenwich, Connecticut, at about 12:30 p.m. on October 31, 1975. The girl had been severely and repeatedly beaten with a golf club and then stabbed with the metal shaft after the club broke.

Moxley’s parents had become concerned the night before when Martha didn’t come home. Martha had last been seen around 9:30 p.m., standing in the driveway of a neighbor’s house, talking to 17-year-old Thomas Skakel, who lived there with his father, his sister and five brothers, including Michael, who was then 15 years old.

As Thomas Skakel and Martha chatted in the dark, several of the Skakel siblings and a cousin, James Terrien, were piling into a car to drive Terrien home. They stayed at Terrien’s for about an hour, watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and returned to their own home around 11 p.m.

Quickly, the investigation focused on Thomas Skakel. The golf club, a six iron, belonged to his mother, who had died two years earlier. In addition, Thomas gave inconsistent statements to the Greenwich police about his whereabouts on the night in question and had said he had gone inside to complete a pressing homework assignment. (His teachers said there was no such assignment.) Kenneth Littleton, who lived with the Skakels and worked as a sitter and tutor, said that Thomas wasn’t in his room at 10 p.m.

The Skakels were a wealthy and prominent family, related to the Kennedy dynasty through the siblings’ aunt, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy. Greenwich police interviewed several hundred people in the early stages of the investigation as they chased leads and tried to find out what happened.

Dr. Elliott Gross, then the state’s chief medical examiner, performed the autopsy. His report did not give a time of death but rather a window for the murder of between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. In December 1975, Greenwich police hired Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk, the chief medical examiner in Harris County, Texas, to assist in the investigation and evaluate the forensic evidence. He reviewed Gross’s autopsy and said that the information it contained suggested a time of death at about 10 p.m.

In reaching this determination, Jachimczyk had used evidence outside the pathology lab. He would note that witnesses, including Martha’s mother, had told police that between 9:30 and 10 p.m. on October 30, the neighborhood dogs had begun howling in an ominous manner. (October 30 was also “Mischief Night,” a time when teenagers in Greenwich often engaged in petty vandalism.)

Thomas Skakel was given two polygraph tests. His responses were deemed inconclusive. He said he and Martha might have engaged in some horseplay after the others left, but he denied any inappropriate or sexual contact.

On May 21, 1976, Greenwich Police Captain Thomas Keegan sought permission from the state’s attorney to issue an arrest warrant against Thomas Skakel. In his affidavit, Keegan said that Thomas was the last person known to have seen Martha alive, that he was often seen carrying a golf club around the neighborhood, and that on several occasions, he had displayed acts of rage and violence. But Keegan’s affidavit included no witnesses to the crime, and the state’s attorney declined to bring charges.

For many years, the investigation languished. But then other events caused it to resurface. In 1991, another Kennedy relative, William Kennedy Smith, was acquitted of rape at a highly publicized trial in Florida. The outcry after the acquittal centered on the idea that the Kennedys used their power to avoid accountability for their actions. Among the writers covering the trial was Dominick Dunne, who would later become a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Dunne’s “A Season in Purgatory,” a thinly veiled novel based on the Moxley murder, was published in 1993 and became a best-seller. Dunne’s killer was a character based on Thomas Skakel.

Because of that renewed interest in the Skakel case, Rushton Skakel Sr., the father of Thomas and Michael, hired Sutton Associates, a private security firm, to investigate the murder and hopefully put the family – particularly Thomas – beyond suspicion. But the investigation backfired. First, Thomas told Sutton that he had lied to the police. After the car left at 9:30, he and Martha had engaged in approximately 20 minutes of heavy petting, including mutual masturbation.

Michael told the investigators that after he returned from the Terrien house at about 11, he had gone back outside an hour later to peep in the window of a female neighbor. On the way home, Michael said, he had stopped at Martha’s house, climbed a tree near her window, and masturbated. (Michael would later tell a similar story to Richard Hoffman, a ghostwriter he hired in 1997 to help him with a memoir.)

A Sutton employee stole the Skakel files in 1994 and gave them to Dunne and Leonard Levitt, an investigative journalist. Levitt’s articles disclosed the contents of the Sutton report. Dunne turned over his copy to Mark Fuhrman, the former Los Angeles police detective at the heart of the O.J. Simpson trial. Fuhrman’s book, “Murder in Greenwich,” was published in 1998 and accused Michael Skakel of murdering Martha Moxley and the Skakel family of banding together to cover it up. Fuhrman claimed that Martha had written in her diary that Thomas was interested in her romantically. That was disproved at trial, but a later court would note that “Fuhrman’s false claims nevertheless appear to have formed the basis for the state’s theory that the petitioner murdered the victim in a jealous rage.”

Partly at Fuhrman’s urging, a grand jury began meeting in September 1998. The new publicity about the case, as well as the possibility of a reward, had brought forward other witnesses, including several people who had attended the Elan School in rural Maine with Michael in the late 1970s. Elan, now closed, was a residential drug-treatment facility where harsh punishments, including physical and emotional abuse, formed the core of behavior modification techniques. Two Elan classmates said Michael had made confessional statements to them. In addition, Littleton, who at one point had been considered an alternate suspect, testified before the grand jury in exchange for immunity.

A single grand juror heard testimony about Michael Skakel’s whereabouts on the night Moxley went missing and whether he had gone to Terrien’s house. The contemporaneous police reports had included witness statements saying he was there, but now those statements were viewed through the filter of a family cover-up. Georgeann Dowdle, Terrien’s sister, said she was at the house with her daughter and her “beau” when James arrived home. Because of the passage of time, she could not recall whether she actually saw Michael, but she said that the statement given to police in the early days of the investigation, where she said Michael was present, was accurate.

Michael Skakel was arrested on January 19, 2000, and initially charged with murder as a minor, because he was 15 years old at the time of Martha’s death. In February 2001, a judge ordered Skakel to be tried as an adult, stating that the juvenile system wasn’t equipped to punish a defendant who was nearly 40 years old.

Skakel’s trial in Bridgeport Superior Court began in May 2002. He was represented by Michael Sherman, a well-regarded attorney. Prosecutors had no eyewitnesses to the crime or evidence directly linking Skakel to the murder. They built their case around circumstantial evidence, including Skakel’s purported statements to Elan classmates, his past erratic behavior, and his own words about being outside Moxley’s window, which Hoffman had taped.

Gregory Coleman had been assigned to guard Skakel at Elan after he tried to run away. He testified before the grand jury and at a probable cause hearing that Skakel had told him “I am going to get away with murder because I am a Kennedy” and that he had beaten a girl’s head in with a golf club. But Coleman didn’t testify at the trial. He had died of a heroin overdose, and his testimony was read into the record. Another Elan student, John Higgins, testified that Skakel had talked about a murder he was “somehow involved in.” Skakel, Higgins said, “didn’t know whether he did it, that he may have done it, he didn’t know what happened, eventually, he came to the point that he did do it, he must have done it.”

Other Elan students testified that these statements couldn’t be taken at face value. They said that Joseph Ricci, Elan’s executive director, taunted Skakel and constantly accused of him of being involved in Martha’s murder. When Skakel pushed back, Ricci would make an example of him, and invite other students to verbally and physically assault Skakel at events called “General Meetings.” One classmate said Skakel always denied a role in Martha’s death, but the beatings would continue with ferocity until Skakel expressed doubt about his innocence.

A neighbor and friend of Martha and the Skakels at the time testified that Michael had a crush on Martha and was jealous of Thomas’s potential relationship with her. Other witnesses recalled conversations where Skakel had said he had killed before or done something horrible. Besides the Hoffman tapes, two other witnesses said that Skakel had told them about masturbating in a tree outside of Martha’s window. One of the witnesses said that Skakel told him he could see the girl showering and undressing.

Skakel’s partial alibi came under attack. Although there was nothing in the police files from years ago to suggest the witnesses had lied about Michael joining his brothers on the trip to his cousin’s house, prosecutors now said it was built upon lies. Helen Ix, who had been in the driveway with Martha and Thomas Skakel, now said she wasn’t 100 percent sure who went where, only that it was her belief that Skakel had gone with his siblings.

Dowdle’s initial statement to the police had said that Michael was at the house. Now, 27 years later, she was no longer certain, but again – as she had testified before the grand jury – she remembered a “friend” being with her. Neither the prosecutor nor Sherman asked her the name of her friend. In part because of Skakel’s partial alibi, the state’s forensic evidence was presented in a manner to account for a wider range in the time of death. Dr. Harold Carver, the state’s chief medical examiner, testified that he had examined Gross’s report and that it was impossible to say when Martha died. He said the evidence was consistent with the defense’s theory of a death between 9:30 and 10 p.m., but also with a prosecution theory of any time before 1 a.m.

Jachimczyk, who had assisted the Greenwich police in 1975, now testified for the defense. He continued to suggest that his reading of the autopsy report suggested a death closer to 10 p.m., in part based on the barking dogs heard around that time.

In closing arguments, Jonathan Benedict, the state’s attorney, said Skakel’s alibi witnesses were not credible, because they were not independent, and because the shakiness of their memories indicated they were hiding something. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “For all people there are things in life that you are compelled to remember, that you have a need to keep forever straight in your mind no matter how far in the past they are, things that become indelible. When your cousin or brother is a suspect in a horrendous crime and you happened to have been involved with that person on the night of that crime, common sense tells us that you will retain the events of that night as though they were on videotape.”

But Benedict also argued that the alibi wasn’t enough because it only covered part of the evening, because there was testimony that suggested Skakel saw Martha after 11 p.m., and because the evidence wasn’t conclusive about the time of Martha’s death.

On June 7, 2002, after four days of deliberation, the jury convicted Skakel of murder. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

Skakel then began a series of appeals through the Connecticut and federal courts. In 2010, he filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which would be revised three times. Now represented by Hubert Santos, Skakel claimed that Sherman had provided ineffective assistance of counsel while billing him for more than $1.5 million. The petition said Sherman had been ineffective in numerous areas, including: a failure to adequately investigate and raise third-party culpability claims against several possible suspects, including Thomas Skakel; a flawed voir dire that allowed a juror with police connections to serve; a failure to suppress the audiotapes possessed by Hoffman, which were Skakel’s legal property; a failure to present expert testimony about the destructive nature of the Elan School; and a failure to locate a potential independent witness who could place Michael Skakel at the Terrien house on October 30, 1975.

Separately, during this period, Sherman had pled guilty in U.S. District in Connecticut for failing to pay $390,000 in taxes in 2001 and 2002. He was sentenced to a year in federal prison.

Judge Thomas Bishop of Tolland Superior Court vacated Skakel’s conviction on October 13, 2013, and ordered a new trial. He said that Sherman had been ineffective because he had failed to present Thomas Skakel as an alternate suspect, had failed to locate evidence to refute Coleman’s testimony, and had failed to get a statement from Dowdle’s “beau,” a potential independent witness named Dennis Ossorio.

At an evidentiary hearing before Bishop, Ossorio testified that he had been with Dowdle on October 30, 1975, and that he had talked with Michael and his brothers while they were watching television. Bishop wrote that Ossorio was a “disinterested and credible witness with a clear recollection of seeing the petitioner at the Terrien home on the evening in question” during the likely time of the murder.

“The defense of a serious felony prosecution requires attention to detail, an energetic investigation and a coherent plan of defense capably executed,” Bishop wrote. “Trial counsel's failures in each of these areas of representation were significant and, ultimately, fatal to a constitutionally adequate defense.”

After Bishop’s ruling, Skakel was released from prison on November 21, 2013, posting bail of $1.2 million. Separately, the state appealed Bishop’s ruling to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

While the case was pending, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. released his own book on the case, entitled “Framed. Why Michael Skakel Spent Over a Decade in Prison for a Murder He Didn’t Commit.” Kennedy said his cousin was innocent and that the likely suspects were two teenagers from New York who had been in the neighborhood on “Mischief Night” and according to a friend had said they wanted to attack a girl “cave-man style.”

Prosecutors said the book was inflammatory. Some outside observers suggested it was designed for several audiences, including the justices still considering the appeal.

On December 30, 2016, a divided Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the ruling on a 4-3 vote. The court said that Sherman’s representation was not so deficient that it warranted a new trial. The court said that Sherman’s defense had been reasonable and if any mistakes were made, they wouldn’t have altered the jury’s decision to convict. Most importantly, the court said that Ossorio’s testimony was insufficient, because it only corroborated a partial alibi and there was evidence that Martha was killed after 11 p.m.

Justice Peter Zarella, the author of the opinion, retired the next day and went into private practice. On January 6, 2017, Santos filed a motion for reconsideration, solely on Sherman’s failure to locate Ossorio as a witness. Zarella’s retirement required the addition of a justice. Justice Gregory D’Auria was appointed to the supreme court in March 2017.

Oral arguments were heard in February 2016. More than two years later, on May 4, 2018, the court reversed itself, again in a 4-3 decision, and vacated Skakel’s conviction, with D’Auria forming part of the new majority.

The heated opinion and dissents offered two starkly different perspectives on the strength of the state’s case, the evidence and witness testimony, and Sherman’s trial performance. Now writing for the majority, Justice Richard Palmer said that the state’s evidence was “highly impeachable” and “far from strong,” which made the Ossorio testimony essential.

“Because the allegedly fraudulent alibi provided the foundation for the state’s attorney’s claim of a grand family scheme, Ossorio’s credible testimony demonstrating the validity of the alibi also would have debunked the state’s attorney’s broader conspiracy theory,” Palmer wrote.

But the dissents said Ossorio only corroborated a partial alibi, and they criticized the majority for even granting reconsideration, arguing that Santos and Skakel had used celebrity and privilege to get a second bite at the apple to secure an outcome not available to the average prisoner. The minority argued that even if Sherman had failed to locate Ossorio, it wasn’t sufficient to warrant a new trial; there was no conclusive evidence that Martha had been killed before 11 p.m. and some evidence suggested Michael had seen her later that night. While Jachimczyk had factored in the barking dogs as a possible indicator of an earlier time of death, he had also testified that Martha could have been killed later. The dissent noted that barking dogs had little probative value.

The state petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal, but the Court declined to take up the issue.

On October 30, 2020, 45 years after Martha Moxley was killed, prosecutors dismissed the charge against Skakel.

Chief State's Attorney Richard Colangelo said a retrial was not possible. Key witnesses were dead, too much time had elapsed, and there was no additional evidence to test.

Speaking in the courtroom in Stamford, Skakel’s new attorney, Stephan Seeger, said this was the right result because Skakel was innocent. “Mr. Skakel is now able to live his life without restrictions. He's not subject to bail conditions, and he can move forward with his life. He's been through a lot. He spent 11 and half years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. You can imagine there are some things he'd like to accomplish without that weighing on his mind."

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 11/25/2020
Last Updated: 11/23/2020
State:Connecticut
County:Fairfield
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1975
Convicted:2002
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:20 years to Life
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:15
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No