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
Ken Littleton

In 1975 Kenneth Wayne Littleton Jr. was a burly twenty-three-year-old graduate of Williams College, where he'd played rugby; he taught science and coached football at the Brunswick School, in Greenwich. Rushton Skakel had hired Littleton as a live-in tutor and companion to care for his motherless children. Littleton had begun work for the Skakels and visited their home the previous week, and moved in on the day of the murder.

Under police questioning the following day Littleton claimed that after arriving home from dinner he had gone to the master bedroom, on the second floor, where he remained until morning. He said he had neither heard nor seen anything suspicious. Two weeks later, on November 14, Littleton admitted that he had not stayed upstairs but had gone downstairs to watch TV and had seen Tom and Michael Skakel outside with Martha Moxley. He would later deny ever having seen Martha. On December 10 Littleton again changed his story, now saying that from 9:15 to 9:30 he had left the house and walked around the property to look for the Skakel boys. Littleton told the police that he saw no one during his search.

On April 2, 1976, Mildred Ix, Helen's mother and a confidante of Rushton's, told the police that "girlie magazines were found in Mr. Littleton's room," and that he was in the habit of visiting the Skakel gazebo in the nude. She urged them to look again at Littleton. When detectives questioned him later that month, he changed his story for the third time, saying that on the evening of October 30 he had come down to the first floor after watching TV upstairs. When he entered the kitchen, the Skakels' elderly nanny, Margaret Sweeney, asked him to check the driveway, where she'd heard "a fracas caused by the kids." Littleton now said that he went to the area and saw no one, but heard rustling noises coming from the bushes. Police records kept by Jack Solomon show that Littleton now recalled leaving the Skakel house at 10:30 P.M.—an hour later than he'd earlier claimed. Police examiners gave Littleton three lie-detector tests on October 18, 1976. Each test indicated that Littleton was lying when he denied killing Martha Moxley or knowing the location of the missing golf-club pieces. The police confronted Littleton with his test results and asked him to submit to a sodium-pentothal examination. When Littleton refused, the police began looking more closely. They found that his behavior had changed "markedly" since Martha's death.

In April of 1976 Rushton Skakel had fired Littleton after the police visited the Skakel home and reported that Littleton had wrapped his car around a tree in a drunken accident and then abandoned it. Littleton moved to Nantucket, where he traded his preppy clothes for a white outfit with a shark's-tooth necklace framed by an unbuttoned shirt. Walking around town, he would look at himself in store windows, fixing his hair and flexing his muscles. People who had known him previously told the police that he was "bizarre and obnoxious" and had changed for the worse. That summer the Nantucket police arrested Littleton on charges of burglarizing several gift shops. In July, Littleton knocked down a woman employee of the Nantucket Police Department after she casually bumped his dancing partner. That month a Nantucket tourist awoke to find Littleton lying naked on top of her. He had broken in through her bedroom window. Littleton was then living with a woman who told the police that he sometimes "forced himself on her sexually" and often erupted in fits of violence, smashing things in her apartment.

When the Greenwich police learned of Littleton's arrest, they persuaded Nantucket prosecutors to offer to reduce Littleton's felony charge to a misdemeanor if he would submit to a sodium-amytal interview about the Moxley murder. Littleton refused, and pleaded guilty to the felony—a plea that ended his teaching and coaching career. In May of 1977 the Nantucket court gave him a suspended sentence and placed him on probation. In explaining his crime spree to the judge, Littleton said, "When I drink I flip out."

Jack Solomon, of the Fairfield County state attorney's office, and the Greenwich detective Stephen Carroll were convinced that Littleton had murdered Martha Moxley. But they lacked the hard evidence needed for an effective prosecution. The many other plausible suspects would give potential defense attorneys ample opportunity to introduce reasonable doubt, which would prevent a jury from convicting Littleton. The common thinking was that only a confession would result in a conviction. Solomon and Browne resisted the temptation to arrest a suspect in the murder just to appease public demand that they solve it. And so the Moxley murder investigation petered out and became a "cold file."

In 1982 Littleton moved to Florida, where he lived as a street person and was arrested for a variety of crimes, including trespassing, disorderly conduct, drunk driving, public intoxication, and shoplifting. In one incident he climbed a sixteen-story structure and gave President John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. When he was arrested, he told the police that he was "Kenny Kennedy," the black sheep of the Kennedy family.

That year Littleton met Mary Baker, who was also an alcoholic and was in recovery. They moved to Canada and married in Ottawa on April 27, 1983. In a 1991 interview with the Connecticut police conducted in Ottawa—an interview that has never been published—Baker described Littleton as "going nuts" in February of 1984 after he started talking about the Moxley murder. He called Martha's father, David Moxley, Baker said, and asked for money to undergo sodium-pentothal testing, offering to give Moxley copies of the tapes. Littleton said he thought the testing would give him peace of mind and perhaps help him to remember things that happened the night of the murder. He told Moxley that Martha's murder was their "mutual tragedy." Despite his offer to David Moxley, Littleton never did submit to a sodium-pentothal test, although, according to his wife, he remained obsessed by the idea.

In Canada, Littleton was unable to work owing to instability and alcoholism. He and Baker played golf and lived off money she had inherited. Baker told the police that Littleton liked pornography and would often visit strip bars. In June of 1983 his arm was mangled during a knife fight in Hull, Quebec. That autumn the Canadian police arrested him for disruptive conduct near the Canadian Parliament building. After his release the couple moved to Belmont, near Boston.

By 1984, Baker said in her later statements to the police, Littleton had begun identifying himself again as "Kenneth Kennedy," and believed that he could cause a tornado or a hurricane by flushing the toilet. He ate money, drank toilet water, left golf clubs at synagogues, and collected JFK matchbooks. He was often sick from drinking and occasionally suffered delirium tremens. Baker said that while on a trip through Connecticut in February of 1984, Littleton told her that he saw pink elephants and believed that he had magical powers. The police took him to a hospital, and he was in and out of psychiatric facilities over the subsequent years. In November of 1984 Littleton locked Baker and their new baby out of the house; the Belmont police arrested him and reportedly found a knife collection. Baker explained that Littleton had carried a knife in his sock ever since his stabbing in Canada—which he later described to the grand jury as an attempted hit by the Skakel family.

In April of 1985, following another alcohol-induced mental breakdown, Littleton was admitted to Charles River Hospital. In 1986 he became active in an alcoholism-recovery group, but he slipped repeatedly and was plagued by hallucinations and manic depression. In October of 1988 he began staying in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he stalked the Williams rugby team, attended school sporting events, and played golf. According to police reports, Littleton told security officers at Williams that he was a reformed alcoholic and that drinking and drugs had destroyed his life. At one point he cornered the college's dean, William R. Darrow, in his office to request a job advising the rugby team on substance abuse, causing Darrow to "fear for his personal safety" and scaring him "to death." Darrow later described Littleton to the police as "big ... and extremely angry." Police reports quoted him as saying that Littleton had started talking about the Moxley murder and "became very intense." Darrow told the police that Littleton was "nuts" and that his encounter with Littleton was "one of the most frightening experiences of his life."

According to Baker, Littleton sometimes threatened to kill her. He would become particularly depressed, she told the police, around Halloween, the anniversary of Martha's murder. In October of 1989 she threw him out and separated from him. In May of 1990 he threw hot coffee on her and tried to force his way into her house. Littleton moved in with a manic-depressive stripper named Kimberly, in Boston's Combat Zone. He planned to become a male stripper and join Kimberly in her act. He and Baker were divorced on July 12, 1990.

By August of 1991, when Connecticut law-enforcement authorities reopened the Moxley case, Littleton, still a prime suspect, had again been institutionalized, for manic depression and paranoid delusions, at McLean Hospital, in Belmont. Jack Solomon; Sergeant Frank Garr, of the Greenwich police; and Detroit homicide detectives, whom the Greenwich police had brought in to help them with their investigation, all believed that Littleton might be responsible for a string of unsolved homicides of young women in Massachusetts, Florida, Maine, New York, and Canada. On September 23, 1991, Garr went to Ottawa to examine the police files on three young women who had disappeared during a twenty-three-day period in 1988. None of the bodies were ever found. In Garr's report he concluded, "All three women were last seen in the same vicinity ... within close proximity to where Ken Littleton had resided."

That month the Greenwich police interviewed Mary Baker and informed her that they suspected Littleton was a serial killer. She told the police, as described in a previously unpublished 1993 search-warrant application for Littleton's hair and blood samples, that "Littleton had frequently and compulsively" made incriminating statements about the Moxley murder. She said that from the time she met Littleton, in 1982, he had been obsessed and paranoid over the Moxley case and described the incident as "a monkey on his back." She told the police that Littleton had said that "maybe some wickedness took him over for five minutes." She said that Littleton was plagued with "a nagging doubt, because he's not a well man, and [because of] the fact it was not resolved."

On December 4, 1991, according to the search-warrant request, Mary Baker called Garr to say that she'd just had a telephone conversation with Littleton during which he worried that the Connecticut state police might find the missing golf-club handle and trace his fingerprints. "Even if I'm innocent, I could be charged with murder," she said he told her. "Let's say a hunter or someone tripped over them in the woods." She said that he mentioned a pair of pants that he said might have Martha's blood on them. The police knew that Littleton, at his own suggestion, had taken some of the Skakel boys to the family's Catskills cabin the weekend after the killing, and they speculated that he could have disposed of the evidence then. The police report noted that while in Windham, Littleton had borrowed a shotgun from Rushton's friend and attorney Thomas Sheridan, saying he wanted to go hunting in the woods.

With Baker's permission, the police began taping conversations between the estranged couple. In a conversation taped by the police on February 10, 1992, Littleton acknowledged to Baker that he had been in an alcoholic blackout on the night of the murder—a significant admission, because he had previously told the police he'd drunk just a single beer. On the same tape Baker reminded Littleton of a conversation during the previous Thanksgiving when Littleton had "renounced the Martha Moxley secret" to her and admitted he was present when Martha died. She reminded him that he had talked to her about a hunting trip and had said, "I hope they don't find it, I hope they don't find, you know, my pants, I didn't do it, it was an accident." She also reminded him that in September he had described details of the killing. "Oh God," she told Littleton he had said. "She wouldn't die. I had to stab her through the neck." She said to Littleton, "I mean, you convinced me that you did it." Littleton's responses on the tape are noncommittal.

LITTLETON: You think I did it?

BAKER: I, I can't say right this minute. But you convinced me, this is what I've been living with ...


When this and several similar tapes, including Littleton's many confused denials of Baker's recollections, were played at the trial, Michael Skakel's prosecutors argued that the police who were recording Littleton's conversations were causing Baker to plant these ideas in his head. Mary Baker herself testified that Littleton "never made any admission as to his complicity in the crime" and that she believed "he didn't commit the murder." But Jack Solomon strongly defended his belief in her earlier statements to the police. At the trial he testified, "Our hope was ... to corroborate what [Baker] told us about him, all the statements that he made ... for several months." Solomon said that based on her information his department had devoted enormous resources to searching the wilderness around Windham with officers and dogs for the golf-club handle and pants. "If I put her up to that," he said, "I certainly would not have gone up there and tried to corroborate. The tape speaks for itself."

On December 15, 1992, Littleton took a polygraph exam administered by the nationally recognized polygraph expert Robert Brisentine. The test again indicated that Littleton "was not truthful when he denied causing the death of Miss Moxley." After confirming these results in a second test, Brisentine left the examining room. According to someone close to the conversation, he took Solomon aside and said, "The man who murdered Martha Moxley is sitting in that room. Don't ever let anyone persuade you otherwise." A similar version of the same event is reported in Timothy Dumas's Greentown (1998). Brisentine himself recently told me that he doesn't recall having said that, but added that he did ask to interrogate Littleton further at the time, because "even if he didn't commit the crime, he definitely had guilty knowledge of the crime and probably knows who did." By now Littleton had failed five polygraphs about the Moxley murder.

That same month, during a tape-recorded conversation with a state-retained psychiatrist, Kathleen Morall, Littleton wondered whether he "could have" committed the crime. Earlier that year the forensic scientist Henry Lee had identified two hairs found on or near Martha's body as "microscopically similar" to Littleton's. One of these was later determined to be from someone of Asian descent; the other was destroyed during testing.

In an interview in October of 1992, Littleton told the police that he'd heard dogs barking when he wandered the Skakel yard around 9:30 P.M. This directly contradicted what he had earlier told the police. In his earlier interviews and during his polygraph tests on October 18, 1976, Littleton had claimed that Margaret Sweeney sent him outside to check on the "fracas" in the driveway area. During those polygraphs, the 1993 search-warrant request explained, "Littleton was specifically asked if he'd heard a dog, to which he answered 'no.' Littleton then volunteered that he did not hear any barking" when he went outside, and that he had heard no barking dogs "throughout the night." Mary Baker later told the police that Littleton had a peculiar hatred of dogs, "specifically when they bark." She did not say when that hatred began.

This is consistent with Solomon's speculation that after Sweeney asked Littleton to check on the fracas, Littleton's hatred of dogs prompted him to grab a golf club stored near the door. Outside he heard the rustling of Tom and Martha in the bushes. Inflamed and in an alcoholic stupor, he followed Martha as she walked toward her house. When she refused his advances, he struck her and dragged her under the evergreen boughs. In Solomon's judgment, the zigzagging path across the yard, first toward a neighbor's house and then back to the pine tree, indicates a perpetrator unfamiliar with the terrain. The tree under which Martha's body was found was adjacent to a path used daily by local children as a shortcut from southern Belle Haven to Walsh Lane, where many of their friends lived. According to Sheridan, the Skakel family lawyer, "Anyone familiar with the neighborhood would have dragged her another ten yards into the tall grass, where she might have remained hidden for days."

Julie Skakel told me that she talked with Littleton as he entered the kitchen from the pantry, at around 10:00 P.M. The location is inconsistent with any of his alibis: when he first told of leaving the house, he said he had re-entered through the front door. The door to a mud room off the pantry was the only place one might expect to enter the Skakel home unobserved. Littleton had changed from the plaid shirt he had worn at dinner, Julie said, into a sweatshirt. A part-time security guard, Charles Morganti, had described seeing a 200-pound, six-foot man near the Moxley yard at the time of the murder. A composite portrait based on Morganti's report, withheld by prosecutors during the Skakel trial and released afterward, is a dead ringer for Littleton. The day after the murder the Skakel maid found laundered dungarees and Tretorn sneakers in the laundry room. The pants, for a thirty-six-inch waist, and shoes were too large to fit any member of the Skakel family. The police thought that the clothing had been washed too vigorously for any blood traces to show up, according to Thomas Sheridan. Then the police lost these critical pieces of evidence. Finally, Tom Skakel told me that he and Littleton had watched The French Connection after 10:00 on the night of the murder, and that Littleton had kept his body entirely covered with a blanket—something Tom had considered odd, because it was not cold in the room. Julie has no memory of seeing bloody pants. In Littleton's defense, there are inconsistencies and memory gaps among the stories of the dozens of witnesses I interviewed recently. I have no reason to believe that any of them deliberately lied to me.

In February of 1993 Littleton told the police that he was no longer willing to cooperate in the investigation. In 1994 Solomon told Sheridan that Boston authorities had impounded Littleton's car after a run-in with a Boston policeman. Sheridan recently told me that Solomon then showed him and Emanuel Margolis, Tom Skakel's lawyer, a black three-ring binder containing photos of the bodies of teenage girls fatally bludgeoned within the vicinity of Littleton's various homes. Littleton was a suspect in the murders, Solomon told him. Solomon said he was trying to assemble an arrest warrant for Littleton in the Moxley murder. For unknown reasons the warrant was never obtained. In the summer of 1998 Connecticut's attorney general granted Littleton lifetime immunity and removed him from the suspect list in exchange for his testimony before a rarely invoked one-man grand jury called to indict Michael Skakel.

In July of 1999 Littleton called the Greenwich Time from McLean Hospital and said that the Kennedy family was trying to kill him. Shortly after being released he stabbed himself four times in the chest with a kitchen knife. The police who searched his apartment found the charred pages of a diary, torn from the binding and burned. Littleton refused to talk with the police about the stabbing.

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

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