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
Dominick Dunne

I do not know that Ken Littleton killed Martha Moxley. I do know—and as a former prosecutor, I understand the laws of evidence—that the state's case against Littleton was much stronger than any case against Michael Skakel. Many people have wondered why, after years of uncertainty and inaction, Connecticut officials decided to pursue Michael with sudden ferocity. The answer is Dominick Dunne.

Dunne, who has transformed a lifelong fascination with celebrity and wealth into a career as a gossip and a novelist, had personal reasons for his attraction to this case. His own daughter, Dominique, was murdered in 1982, and her killer, a restaurant chef, was released from prison after serving less than three years. "I was so outraged about our justice system," Dunne told a reporter in a 1996 interview, "that everything I've written since has dealt with that system—how people with money and power get different verdicts than other people."

Dunne has built his career on linking notorious murders to powerful people, including John and Patsy Ramsey, Claus von Bulow, and O.J. Simpson. That formula has given Dunne his own measure of celebrity and wealth. His efforts to connect a Kennedy relative to the Moxley murder have been both a decade-long fixation and a profitable venture. "The Kennedys," he has said, "are the greatest soap opera in American history." Michael Skakel would get caught in the cross hairs where Dunne's ambitions intersected with his obsessions.

In the fall of 1991 Dunne, then covering William Kennedy Smith's rape trial in Palm Beach for Vanity Fair, repeated a report that the Connecticut state's attorney Donald Browne had requested forensic evidence from Will Smith. Dunne wrote, "Though there have been reports that Willy Smith was a guest of the Skakels [the night of Martha Moxley's murder] no evidence links him to the case." He also wrote that Browne denied the story. What Dunne did not say, and did not know, is that Will Smith had never met a Skakel with the exception of Ethel Kennedy. Not until two years later did Dunne admit that the rumor had been proved false.

Dunne knew almost nothing about the Moxley murder in 1991. Yet in his article about the Smith trial he declared, "Either the [Moxley] investigation was thoroughly botched or someone bowed to influence." Dunne would subsequently enlarge on this theme in a best-selling novel, a TV miniseries, and articles for Vanity Fair. In the novel, A Season in Purgatory (1993), a thinly veiled John F. Kennedy Jr. murders his young neighbor in Greenwich and gets away with it because of family power. At the time, Dunne was sure that Tom Skakel had killed Martha, and never lost an opportunity to point that out during an extensive national press tour for his novel, which included appearances on programs such as Hard Copy and the CBS Evening News With Connie Chung, and also interviews with Jay Leno and Joan Rivers. I and other Skakel family members watched in horror as Dunne publicly accused Tommy of having committed the crime. "I was convinced that [Tom] had done it," he later explained in Vanity Fair, "and had said so on television."

As Dunne likes to say, his book and the miniseries that followed dramatically raised the public profile of the unsolved murder. Liz Smith reported in a 1993 column that the Greenwich Police Department felt that Dunne had put it on the spot. According to Frank Garr and Donald Browne, it was the publicity generated by the Smith trial, which included a Leonard Levitt article that accused the Greenwich police of having made errors, that led the state to reopen the investigation.

If it didn't turn out that a Kennedy cousin had committed the crime, the story would be worth much less to Dunne. Dunne ignored the strong evidence against Littleton; in his many articles and interviews about the case he never mentioned Littleton's five failed polygraphs, his shifting alibis, his call to David Moxley, his statement to the psychiatrist about whether he could have committed the crime, the physical evidence of hair similarities, his history of sexual misconduct, and his capacity to deliver the blows. Dunne suggested that Littleton's alcoholism and his criminal activity were the result of stress from unfair suspicion. The Skakels never publicly blamed Littleton for the crime. In his Vanity Fair article on the murder Dunne offered a purged and abbreviated inventory of Littleton's criminal and mental-health history and then concluded, "But there is one thing I'm sure he didn't do: he did not kill Martha Moxley." No Skakel has ever benefited from the same presumption of innocence in Dunne's writings.

Soon after Will Smith's acquittal, in December of 1991, Dunne wrote to Dorthy Moxley, recounting his own daughter's murder and asking to meet her. Their terrible shared tragedies appealed to her trust, and they forged a friendship. Dunne wrote in Vanity Fair, "I swore to her that I would help her get justice for her daughter." Dorthy Moxley, who had previously been as judicious as everyone else, became certain that a Skakel had committed the crime. She has often acknowledged that her theories about Skakel involvement were influenced by Dunne.

In promoting A Season in Purgatory, Dunne kept up his needling. "There are only two possible reasons" the murder remained unsolved, he told the Chicago Tribune. "Either the police are totally inept. Or somehow power and money have played a part in covering up." Such statements continued to rankle law-enforcement officials. After his book tour Dunne was visited by several members of the Moxley investigation team, including Frank Garr, who brought gifts of a state-police plaque, a T-shirt, and a mug, and asked him to stop criticizing their work. Dunne agreed to a truce. Garr would later lead the efforts to press charges against Michael Skakel. Jack Solomon and Donald Browne retired from the state attorney's office. Garr moved from the Greenwich Police Department to the state attorney's office to take over Solomon's responsibilities.

Although Solomon would not speak to me about the case, a source close to him who wishes to remain unnamed told me in November, "Jack believes that your cousin did not commit the murder. He is absolutely sick and beside himself because he believes an innocent man is in the can. But Jack is a cop through and through, and he will not make any public statement that might embarrass his lawenforcement colleagues."

In May of 1996 the miniseries A Season in Purgatory aired, and Dunne mounted yet another media blitz. That month he escorted Dorthy Moxley to a press conference to announce that she was raising the reward for information about her daughter's killer from $50,000 to $100,000.

Even though Dunne had said he would stop picking on the Greenwich police, he soon urged his friend Mark Fuhrman to become their Torquemada. He provided Fuhrman with evidence that would be central to Fuhrman's book Murder in Greenwich (1998) and, Fuhrman said, the inspiration to write it. The book, with an introduction by Dunne, is a 283-page diatribe against the Greenwich police, who, Fuhrman says in the book, angered him by treating him as a pariah. Fuhrman castigated them as "servants of the rich and powerful." Echoing Dunne, he wrote, "Someone killed Martha Moxley and got away with it. And the reason he got away with it was that the Greenwich Police Department ... didn't have the courage to go after him."

Sutton Associates

Dunne would later brag that it was his relentless campaign after the publication of his novel that prompted Rushton Skakel to take a step that led to Dunne's bringing Fuhrman into the case—and that eventually doomed Michael. In the spring of 1993 Rushton, who was already suffering from the frontal-lobe dementia and schizophrenia that would later debilitate him, hired at Sheridan's urging Sutton Associates, a private-investigation firm composed of former law-enforcement officials from the FBI and the New York Police Department. The Skakels were convinced that the original police investigation had been bungled, to Tom's detriment, and they were desperate to clear the family name.

Sutton's president, James Murphy, a veteran of fifteen years with the FBI, recently told me, "While Rushton Skakel thoroughly believed his children were innocent, we were told that wherever the chips fall, they, the Skakel family ... want to know the truth and that the Skakel family recognized Mrs. Moxley's pain and have instructed that any information that develops which contributes to the solution of Martha Moxley's homicide is to be immediately shared with Connecticut authorities." Both Murphy, who is now an ordained Catholic deacon, and Thomas Sheridan, who acted as the liaison between Sutton and the Skakel family, told me that they were certain Rushton would have turned any of his children over to the police if he thought they were guilty.

The Greenwich police cooperated with Sutton, as did most other witnesses. All the members of the Skakel family agreed to talk to Sutton detectives about their memories of that night. It was the first time that most of them had discussed the Moxley murder at any length, publicly or privately, since their original police interviews. Several of them, including John and Julie, underwent hypnosis and sodium-pentothal testing. Sutton interviewed hundreds of people, including Ken Littleton and John Moxley, Martha's brother.

Both Tom and Michael told Sutton detectives details they had not disclosed to the police in 1975. Tom, for example, described his sexual encounter with Martha on the rear lawn of the Skakel property. When I recently asked Tom why he had waited so long to tell the full story, I anticipated his answer—Rushton's severe attitude toward sex. (Rushton, his children told me, considered masturbation "equivalent to the slaughter of millions of potential Christians.") Tom was his father's favored son. "I loved my father and didn't want to lose his respect," he told me. "My father was the most important person in my life. He was a staunch Catholic with strict views about premarital sex. I was frightened of disappointing him."

Michael had equally urgent concerns. The runt of the family, he had always been a target for his father's anger. Rushton Skakel drank alcoholically for four years following his wife's death. (He quit drinking in 1977.) During this period he occasionally hit Michael, and once fired a gun in his direction during a hunting trip. Michael sometimes slept in a closet to escape his father's wrath. When Michael was ten, Rushton had caught him looking at Playboy with his friends and knocked him silly. By age thirteen Michael was an alcoholic.

In 1993 he had been sober for eleven years and was a powerful athlete. No longer fearful of his father, Michael, too, told Sutton detectives the full story of what he had done that night. After returning from the Terriens', at around 11:20, high on pot and alcohol, he had gone for a walk to peep through the window of a woman who was known to walk around her house scantily clad. Disappointed that her shades were drawn, he decided to go home. When he passed the Moxley house, Michael saw a light and climbed a tree next to a bedroom he thought was Martha's. He tossed pebbles to get her attention and called, "Martha, Martha," but there was no response. He made a halfhearted attempt to masturbate in the tree before becoming embarrassed and climbing down. On his way home he sensed a presence in the dark bushes near the Moxleys' driveway. He yelled, threw stones in that direction, and dashed back to his house, frightened. The downstairs doors being bolted, he climbed through his bedroom window at 12:30. He had been out for thirty or forty minutes.

Michael told me that when they heard his story, the Sutton investigators burst out laughing. That's when Michael learned, for the first time, that the window he had looked in was John Moxley's, not Martha's. John was out late that night, according to police reports.

Largely owing to Dunne's retelling of the story, it would later become a common assumption that Michael had masturbated in the tree below which Martha's body was discovered. In fact the two trees are on opposite sides of the Moxley house, 300 feet apart.

The Sutton files occupy thousands of pages, filling two file cabinets. At Sheridan's request the company assembled draft "portfolios" that made hypothetical cases against Tom and Michael Skakel and Ken Littleton. These portfolios construct a prose-cutor's best case against each one. The one on Michael was titled "Michael Skakel, A Purposefully Prejudicial Analysis of Michael Skakel and his Testimony." Sheridan recently told me why he had asked for scenarios to be constructed against any Skakel who might be considered a suspect: "My old man told me to always ask for the worst case. That way you know you're not being bullshitted." Murphy and Willis Krebs, a retired NYPD detective working for Sutton Associates, told me separately that they believed Michael Skakel was innocent.

In December of 1995 Leonard Levitt reported in Newsday that anonymous sources had informed him that both Tom and Michael had spoken to private investigators hired by the Skakel family and had elaborated on their whereabouts the night of the murder. The state attorney's office publicly called for a full disclosure of Sutton's findings—to no avail. When pieces of the report began to leak, Tom's lawyer, Emanuel Margolis, who had opposed the Sutton project from the outset and had allowed Tom's participation only reluctantly (Tom was still the only Skakel represented by counsel), demanded that all copies of the report and all underlying evidence be turned over to him. Margolis thought that the report might feed the ambitions of those among the investigators who seemed determined to blame Tom. According to Sheridan and Murphy, Margolis now has the only known full set of the Sutton files, which he keeps under lock and key. No member of the Skakel family has ever seen any part of the Sutton files except those portions of the prejudicial portfolios that subsequently appeared on the Internet.

Before Margolis gained control of the files, however, a twenty-year-old aspiring journalism student named Jamie Bryant, temporarily employed by Sutton to help write the scenarios, reportedly handed them over to Dominick Dunne in November of 1996, just as Dunne was leaving to cover the O.J. Simpson civil trial. Murphy told me that Bryant later told him he had stolen the portfolios in an effort to land a job at Vanity Fair. After reading them, Dunne passed the portfolios on to both Dorthy Moxley and Frank Garr.

Garr called the Greenwich detective Stephen Carroll and told him that he now considered Michael to be on the suspect list. After debating Michael's alibi, according to Mark Fuhrman, the police officers concluded he could not have committed the crime. Fuhrman, who later befriended Dorthy Moxley by promising to solve the murder, wrote that Garr explained to her at the time that the Sutton files were just speculative "scenarios."

Dunne got in touch with Fuhrman, who Dunne says he had come to admire during the O.J. trial. Fuhrman was then living in northern Idaho, having left the Los Angeles Police Department in disgrace after the O.J. trial. Dunne later wrote that when he got Fuhrman on the phone, he said, "Hey, Mark, I've got just the one for you, and I have a private detective report that's going to knock you on your ass."

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

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