A Miscarriage of Justice

Celebrity trials can turn into media lynchings. Last year a Connecticut jury convicted Michael Skakel of killing his neighbor Martha Moxley twenty-seven years ago, even though the prosecution had no fingerprints, no DNA, and no witnesses. The author, a former New York City prosecutor, argues that his cousin's indictment was triggered by an inflamed media, and that an innocent man is now in prison

The tragedy of Martha Moxley's death, twenty-seven years ago, has been compounded by the conviction of an innocent man.

I know Michael Skakel, my first cousin, as well as one person can know another. He helped me to get sober, in 1983. We attended hundreds of alcoholism-recovery meetings together. In that context and others we have shared our deepest feelings. For fifteen years we skied, fished, hiked, and traveled together, often with my wife and children. During that time I sometimes spent as many as two or three weekends a month in his company. Like nearly everyone else who knows him well, I love Michael. If he were guilty, I would have testified against him. He is not.

Until I recently visited him in prison, the two of us had been estranged for several years. Beginning in 1998, stress from the public focus on Michael as a murder suspect began to affect his personality. He lashed out at the Kennedy family, which he believed was partly responsible for his predicament, and refused to speak to me. On the two days I attended his court proceedings last year, in Norwalk, Connecticut, he was cold and distant. Many people asked me why I would publicly defend him—a cause unlikely to enhance my own credibility. I support him not out of misguided family loyalty but because I am certain he is innocent.

The Skakels rarely discussed the Moxley case among themselves, and mostly didn't read press reports about it—the first because of family culture and legal advice, the second because most of the press coverage was biased, inaccurate, and painful. "We never talked about it," Michael's sister, Julie, recently told me. "Through all the years we never discussed this. We never compared notes." Michael's conviction shocked his six siblings into talking about the case with one another, and with me. For the first time, they shared their memories of the night when Martha Moxley was killed. In preparing this article I spoke to each of them; to other witnesses; to Michael's lawyers; and to investigators. I read police and press reports about the case and put together the story for myself.

Martha Moxley

Just after noon on Halloween, 1975, Martha Moxley, age fifteen, was found lying face down on her family property in the Belle Haven section of Greenwich, Connecticut. Her blue jeans and underpants were pulled down. Although strong evidence suggests that the attack was a sexual assault, the police concluded that Martha had not been raped. Her body had been dragged across the grass on a zigzag path from the Moxley driveway to the side of the lawn and hidden below the drooping boughs of a pine tree. She had been struck several times in the head with a Toney Penna golf club—so ferociously that the club had shattered into multiple pieces—and then stabbed in the neck with the broken shaft. The club's handle and part of the shaft had vanished.

Martha was last seen the night before, at the home of the Moxleys' neighbor Rushton Skakel, my mother's brother and the father of six boys and a girl. The Skakel family residence contained many golf clubs, including a set of Toney Pennas that had belonged to Rushton's wife, Anne Reynolds Skakel, who had died of cancer two years before. The Skakels played chip and putt in their yard, and were known for leaving sports equipment scattered around the property. Rushton kept golf clubs at each door, and would carry one on his daily walk in order to ward off the numerous dogs in Belle Haven.

On the evening of Martha's murder Rushton was away on a hunting trip. The family's new live-in tutor, Kenneth Littleton, took the older children—Rush Jr., Thomas, John, Julie, and Michael—to the Belle Haven Club for dinner, along with their cousin Jim Terrien and their friend Andrea Shakespeare. Littleton later told the police that he and the children had had one Heineken each. Tom, seventeen, said they'd had several beers and some hard liquor.

The police established that the Skakel party returned home at 8:45 P.M. Martha Moxley and Helen Ix and Geoffrey Byrne, other neighbors, met Michael in the driveway, where they sat in the Skakels' Lincoln listening to music. At 9:15 Tom joined Michael and Martha in the front seat.

Around 9:30 Rush Jr. and John came from the Skakel house and told everyone that they were going to drive Jim back to the Terrien house, twenty minutes away in North Greenwich, where they would watch Monty Python's Flying Circus. Tom and Martha got out. Michael climbed into the back seat, as his older brothers ordered, and the four of them set off. Helen and Geoff headed home. They last saw Tom and Martha engaging in romantic horseplay near the driveway.

Eighteen years later Tom would tell investigators that after the other boys left, he'd had a "sexual" encounter with Martha that lasted twenty minutes, ending in mutual masturbation to orgasm. Around 9:50 the two rearranged their clothes, and Martha said good night. Tom last saw her hurrying across the rear lawn toward her house to make her curfew.

Using evidence from the autopsy, the police determined that the murder took place at around 10:00 P.M. Several people, including Dorthy Moxley, Martha's mother, Helen Ix, and David Skakel, then aged twelve, heard dogs howling furiously from 9:50 to 10:30 with, Helen said, a "scared violent barking." Michael and his older brothers did not return to Belle Haven until 11:20.

The First Suspects

The writer Dominick Dunne, a driving force behind Michael Skakel's prosecution, continually accused the Skakel family of using its power and Kennedy connections to intimidate the Greenwich police "to protect one of their own." In 1991 Dunne wrote in Vanity Fair, "It is thought in the community and elsewhere that Kennedy influence was brought to bear." In 1996 he told a UPI reporter, "The [Skakel] family is so powerful that since the first night the police have never been able to question family members." In 2000 Dunne said on CNN, "The Skakels were able to hold off the police all these years ... If this was a family of lesser stature, that simply would not have happened."

Reporters who conducted serious investigations into Dunne's charges found them to be false. Leonard Levitt, a reporter for Newsday who wrote the most thorough journalistic treatment of the Moxley case, concluded that although inept work by a police department that had not investigated a homicide for decades may have let the killer go free, this had nothing to do with intimidation by the Skakels. In an exhaustive 1997 article in The Hartford Courant, Joel Lang concluded that Dunne's accusations "probably sprang more from bias than fact." "There was no cover up," Levitt told Lang. "There was a screw-up." John Elvin, who in 1999 wrote a comprehensive investigative piece on the murder for the magazine Insight on the News, described the Skakels as "cooperative—somewhat bizarrely ... even participating in the search for evidence and serving coffee and snacks to the cops." The Greenwich police detective Stephen Carroll, who was one of the first officers to arrive on the scene, told the New York Daily News that Rushton Skakel "was so cooperative and there was the feeling that no one there could have done it."

Everyone in the Skakel house spoke to police investigators freely and without counsel. All the Skakels, including Michael, indicated their willingness to take polygraph tests, and at least two family members did take them. In the months after the murder Tom Skakel submitted to multiple interviews and two lie-detector tests; Rushton gave detectives permission to take hair samples from Tom and to obtain his school, medical, and psychological records. With the family's consent the police drained the Skakels' pool and took soil samples from their yard. Rushton allowed the police to use his house as an informal neighborhood headquarters while they investigated the crime. Garbage from the house was searched regularly.

Dunne and, later, his friend and protégé, the former Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman (who had become notorious for lying under oath during the O.J. Simpson trial), would complain that the Greenwich police never obtained a search warrant for the Skakel residence, saying they didn't dare. "Someone bowed to influence," Dunne concluded in the 1991 Vanity Fair article. But Rushton gave the police a signed consent-to-search form and full access to the house, and allowed them to examine it whenever they wanted. Stephen Carroll and his colleague James Lunney conducted several thorough searches. "It was an open house—he'd never even go with us," Carroll told Fuhrman. Rushton also gave the police keys to his Catskills ski house, in Windham, New York. Carroll explained to The Hartford Courant, "People criticize us for not getting search warrants. But [the Skakels'] attitude was, 'Oh, yes, help yourself.'" He explained to Fuhrman, "We never thought there was any reason to get a search warrant, because we had already been through the house. Up one side, down the other."

Contrary to Dunne's assertions, the Skakels never got a break from the police, who immediately began focusing on Tom Skakel and a twenty-six-year-old Moxley neighbor as the primary suspects. Because Tom was the last person known to have seen Martha alive, he was interrogated for nearly six hours at police headquarters as soon as Martha's body was discovered.

This unusual level of cooperation lasted for three months. In late January, as the police intensified their focus on Tom, Rushton Skakel finally hired a criminal lawyer, Emanuel Margolis, to represent Tom. Margolis took the common precaution of shutting down access to his client. Pledging continued cooperation, he asked investigators to submit to him any further questions for family members. Margolis and Thomas Sheridan, Rushton's longtime friend and corporate attorney, met and spoke with the police and the state attorney's office periodically, conveying questions to and answers from family and household members. In the early 1990s the Skakels opened their Belle Haven and Windham houses and allowed police officers to thoroughly search their houses and property with a newly developed metal detector, to gather stain samples from household carpets, and to videotape every room. Tom was willing to testify at Michael's trial; prosecutors called him to Connecticut from Massachusetts, where he now lives, but they canceled his appearance the night before he was scheduled to testify. Michael, too, never hesitated to help police investigators. Last year, when it was reported that the state attorney's office had DNA from scrapings taken from under Martha's fingernails at her autopsy, Michael was perfectly willing to comply with the request for his own DNA for testing. The old evidence could not be linked to anyone other than Martha, however, so the prosecution withdrew its request for Michael's samples.

Sheridan's perception of the Greenwich police contradicts Dunne's. According to Sheridan, "There was a faction within the Greenwich police who were not interested in any evidence that did not point to Tom Skakel." Sheridan believes that police investigators violated Tom's constitutional rights by interrogating him when he was a minor for almost nine hours without counsel, more than five of those with no adult present. The police refused to hand over those interviews to Margolis. The police repeatedly lost or mishandled evidence that might have exculpated Tom, including a piece of the golf-club shaft that was found with the body, a white hair pulled by the roots and found on Martha's body, and vaginal swabs taken by the Connecticut medical examiner. In May of 1976 the Greenwich police submitted to the state attorney's office an application for a bench warrant charging Tom with the murder. "The application was based on all kinds of shaky evidence," Harold Pickerstein, the attorney for Jack Solomon, then the chief inspector in the Fairfield County state attorney's office, recently told me. (Solomon, who is now the chief of police in Easton, Connecticut, will not discuss the case.) Solomon and the state's attorney Donald Browne concluded that the application did not meet legal standards for probable cause and refused to sign it. "I read it," Browne recently told me, "and there was nothing in there other than the fact that he was the last to see her alive and that he'd had some mental problems in the past." (Tom had suffered a serious childhood brain injury and related seizures.) Browne also said that he remembers pressure from the police to charge Tom: "There was some suggestion that if you issue a warrant, nobody will accuse you of not doing your job. But I don't do things that way."

In January of 1976 Rushton had been hospitalized with chest pain soon after he realized that the police considered Tom a serious suspect. Rather than close ranks to protect a killer, though, as Dunne and Fuhrman claim the family did, Rushton initiated his own investigation to determine whether his children could have had any involvement in the murder. All the children underwent batteries of psychological tests and were hypnotized and injected with sodium pentothal—so-called truth serum, which disinhibits subjects. (Today's justice system regards sodium pentothal and sodium amytal, which also has a disinhibiting effect, with a combination of credence and suspicion similar to that with which it views polygraphs.) Michael, who was not a suspect at the time, took a sodium-pentothal test in 1980 and two more in the early 1990s; after each one, Margolis says, psychiatrists concluded that he had not committed the crime. Tom was examined by prominent doctors and subjected to neurological and psychological testing at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. In March of 1976 the doctors concluded, according to Margolis, that Tom could not have committed the crime. The Skakel family lawyers conveyed the results of these tests to the police.

In the early investigations Michael Skakel was never a serious suspect. Three witnesses said that he was miles away, watching Monty Python, when the murder occurred, and John Skakel's testimony was polygraph-certified. To anyone who knew him at the time, the notion that he was the murderer is laughable. (Our families were not then close, and I saw him little.) A scrawny kid who had just turned fifteen, Michael was always the smallest person in his class and at summer camp. He almost certainly lacked both the power to inflict the gruesome damage done to Martha Moxley and the presence of mind to meticulously dispose of the abundant forensic evidence. Don Mallard, a physician who knew Michael and who examined Martha's body, told Mrs. Victor Ziminsky, a Skakel family friend who later told me, that it was "impossible" that Michael could have wielded a golf club with the savagery or strength needed to shatter the shaft and drive it through Martha's body. Mallard, who has since died, said it was equally unlikely that Michael could then drag Martha, who matched him in weight, to the tree, more than a hundred yards from where she was first attacked. The photos used against Michael in court, in which he looks bulky, were taken four years after the murder. Family members told me that at the time of the murder Michael weighed 120 pounds and had a twenty-inch waist.

The case has remained unsolved for so many years not because of Skakel wealth, power, and connections but because it is baffling. There have been more than 600 unsolved murders in Connecticut since Martha's death, several of them in Greenwich. This one was especially difficult because of a parade of more than forty potential suspects. Besides Tom Skakel and the other neighbor these included Franz Wittine, a German gardener who lived in the Skakels' basement and liked to boast of how he had raped and beaten girls as a soldier during World War II. Wittine, who gave four different alibis, liked young blondes and was physically powerful. He was notorious for his lascivious advances toward Julie Skakel and her girlfriends, some of whom were too frightened of him to visit the Skakel house. Back steps leading to his room in the basement allowed him to come and go without notice. Shortly after the murder Wittine disappeared for a short time, quitting his job just a few months shy of the twenty years that would have qualified him for a pension from a Skakel-owned company—a choice that dramatically affected his financial position. He died in 2000.

Also on the list was Ken Littleton, the Skakel family tutor, who in the fall of 1976 emerged as the police's strongest suspect.

Presented by

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is an environmental attorney and a professor at Pace University Law School.

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