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
Reform-School Witnesses

Every Kennedy is painfully familiar with the attention seeker who fashions a chance encounter with a celebrity into a disparaging anecdote. Michael's notoriety made him a magnet for such people—and a February 1996 television program helped prosecutors corral a group of them. In an effort to invigorate the twenty-year-old investigation, Frank Garr arranged for NBC's Unsolved Mysteries to film a segment on the Moxley murder and to provide a telephone number for viewers with information on the crime. The phone calls came in—not about Tom or Littleton but, as Leonard Levitt later reported, about Michael. The calls came from former students at the Elan School who were eager to point the finger at him. Following a drunken car accident at age seventeen, Michael had, at his father's behest, been forced into Elan, which practices a controversial behavior-modification program that relies on peer confrontation. It turned out to be a snake pit where Michael was regularly beaten during the two years he was a resident.

Garr was aggressive in recruiting his witnesses, according to Diane Hozman, a therapist in California and a former Elan resident in whom Michael had confided during his time there. Hozman recently told me that she contacted Garr to help clear Michael of the charges when she realized he was investigating the crime. He flew her to Connecticut four times, once with her son and another time with her boyfriend. She said that she thought Garr was bullying and pressuring her into saying that Michael had confessed. "I felt they were desperate to blame Michael," she told me. "Garr took everything I said out of context to make it fit into his puzzle. He definitely didn't want to hear anything good about Michael. I'm sorry I even talked to Garr." The night before she was to testify, Hozman told the prosecution again that she did not believe that Michael had ever confessed. They sent her home without calling her to the stand.

The state called a total of seven Elan witnesses. Of them the two key witnesses were Gregory Coleman and John Higgins. Coleman, who bullied Michael and was assigned to guard him after a foiled escape, told the grand jury in September of 1998 that Michael had introduced himself to him by saying, "I'm going to get away with murder and I'm a Kennedy." This highly unlikely statement became tabloid fodder and colored public attitudes toward Michael Skakel.

Coleman told the grand jury that while at Elan he had heard Michael confess to the murder five or six times. At Michael's probable-cause hearing, two years later, Coleman amended that estimate to two times. To explain the discrepancy, Coleman said he had shot heroin an hour before his grand-jury testimony. He admitted to shooting twenty to twenty-five bags a day and said that he was on methadone during the probable-cause hearing. He was incarcerated at the time and had made two requests to Connecticut authorities for cash and a reduced sentence in return for his testimony. Coleman swore that Michael told him he had killed Martha with a driver and had gone to visit her body two days later. In fact the golf club used to murder Martha was an iron, and the police removed her body the next day.

Coleman died of an overdose before the trial. But the trial judge, John F. Kavanewsky Jr., allowed his earlier testimony to be read to the jury, although there would be no opportunity for Michael's attorneys to cross-examine Coleman at the trial or for the jury to view his ruined demeanor. The confession Coleman described is inconceivable to anyone who knows Michael, beginning with Michael's alleged declaration "I'm a Kennedy"—a phrase no Skakel would be caught dead saying. Coleman's recollection is similar to a National Enquirer headline shortly after Michael's arrest, which quoted Michael as allegedly telling Harry Kranick, another Elan character, "I killed that chick ... it got me excited." Kranick denied that he ever heard Michael Skakel make any of the reported statements; otherwise the police would certainly have made him testify. Judging by his behavior, Coleman himself never expected to testify. He had waited twenty years to tell his story, and did so in an anonymous call to a local NBC affiliate. The station got in touch with the Connecticut police after tracking Coleman through caller ID.

John Higgins was another Elan bully. At the trial Higgins said that he had been on guard duty with Michael when Michael spontaneously began relating his memories of the Moxley murder. According to Higgins, Michael recalled a party that night at the Skakel house, after which he rummaged in the garage for golf clubs; he remembered running through pine trees afterward and waking up at home. That story is obviously contrived. There was no party that evening, and there has never been a garage at the Skakel house. Higgins refused to sign a formal statement, take a polygraph, or allow the police to tape his phone calls to them. They recorded him anyway, and used the tape to force him to testify at the trial. Higgins later admitted to lying to Garr about his knowledge of Michael's confession.

Other Elan witnesses testified that they had never heard Michael confess while at Elan. Higgins "had a reputation for not being truthful," one witness said, and "seemed to really like making Mike Skakel's life miserable." For two years Michael was continually spat upon, slapped, and deprived of sleep. He was serially beaten with hoses and by students wearing boxing gloves, forced to wear a dunce cap and a toilet seat around his neck, and subjected to a long inventory of other tortures. Upon Michael's arrival at the school, its owner, Joseph Ricci, who came from a town neighboring Greenwich and was aware of the Moxley murder, told him he would never leave the facility until he admitted that Tom Skakel had committed the crime. Elan's administration encouraged students to accuse Michael himself of Martha's murder as part of the school's humiliation therapy. Students like Coleman and Higgins had incentives to report such confessions; they would have been rewarded with extra privileges and elevated status and power. Their claims that Michael had confessed while at Elan and that they then kept his secret are, according to other Elan witnesses, incredible. Referring to Coleman's and Higgins's testimony, Joseph Ricci told Time magazine that "the notion of Michael's confession is just preposterous." Ricci said, "I was there, and I would know." The facility had only a hundred students, and if Michael had confessed, "two things would have happened," Ricci said. "Everybody in the facility would have known and talked about it. And we would have called our lawyers to figure out our obligations. Neither happened." Unfortunately for Michael, Ricci died immediately before the trial, so the jury never heard his testimony.

Geranne Ridge, not an Elan student but a self-described "part-time model," testified that in the spring of 1997 Michael was at a party she alone remembers, in her apartment—which Michael and a mutual friend of Ridge's and Michael's say Michael never visited. Ridge claims that she overheard Michael saying, "Ask me why I killed my neighbor." That is the exact wording of a chin-to-ankle sign Michael was forced to carry for two months at Elan. The sign was thoroughly discussed in such tabloids as The Star, The National Enquirer, and the Globe. Ridge admitted on the stand that she had lied when she told a friend in a conversation that he secretly taped that Michael had confessed to the crime. She admitted that her story of Michael's confession was "BS" invented to impress a friend. She acknowledged that she had come forward only because the friend had handed the tape to the police.

Finally, the prosecution produced Matthew Tucciarone, a hairdresser from the Golden Touch Salon, in Greenwich. Tucciarone claimed that Michael, Rush Jr., and Julie came for haircuts in the spring of 1976. As Tucciarone clipped his hair, Michael conversed with his siblings and said, "I'm going to get a gun and kill him." To this, according to Tucciarone, Julie responded, "You can't do that." Michael then said, "Why not? I did it before. I killed before," and Julie reportedly answered, "Shut up, Michael."

Tucciarone described Julie as having a ponytail and showing her navel. At that time Julie had short hair and would never have exposed her navel. "Dad would have grounded her for a year," Stephen Skakel told me. "Absolutely not," Julie said when I asked her if she would ever have dressed that way. Moreover, Julie testified that she, Rush Jr., and Michael would not have gone for haircuts together during that era. The Skakel siblings went to Mike's barbershop as youngsters and later used Subway Barber. No Skakel, the family told me, has ever been to the Golden Touch Salon or met Tucciarone. Coincidentally, according to Tucciarone, Michael's confession occurred on the one day of the week Tucciarone was working alone in the salon—a holiday when the entire Skakel family always left town. Tucciarone waited twenty-six years to tell his tale: he came forward only after casually relating it to one of his customers, a Stamford sheriff, who urged him to report it to the state attorney's office.

These witnesses have so little credence that it's hardly worth describing them. In many cases they had changed or retracted their stories before the trial began, but were called to testify nonetheless. And the jury believed them. In each case the witness did not initially go to the police but bragged about the story to an acquaintance or to the media, who then notified the police. How likely is it that Michael Skakel, who endured years of torture at Elan during which he refused to admit any guilt, would suddenly "confess" to these crackpots but never to any person he knew or trusted?

Prosecutors also relied heavily on another alleged confession—one with which I, as it happens, am familiar. Many years ago Michael told me a story with his customary honesty and humor. At age sixteen he had once draped himself in a dress of his late mother's and fallen asleep in his room. His father discovered him and went wild. Michael called a family handyman who sometimes drove the children and asked to go to his psychiatrist's office, in New York City, although he did not have an appointment. The driver testified that during the ride Michael said "he had done something very bad and he either had to kill himself or get out of the country." On the way back to Belle Haven, the driver continued, Michael tried to jump off the Triborough Bridge. The prosecution offered that statement as a confession to the Moxley murder. In fact, despite widespread press reports to the contrary, Michael never said he was the murderer—to the driver or to anyone else. The handyman never intended to come forward with the story, but not long before the trial he offhandedly told his bank manager, who reported it to the authorities.

Mickey Sherman

Michael's problems were aggravated by an overconfident and less than zealous defense lawyer who seemed more interested in courting the press and ingratiating himself with Dominick Dunne than in getting his client acquitted. To defend Michael the Skakels had hired Mickey Sherman, a high-profile partner in a small Stamford law firm, at the recommendation of Emanuel Margolis, Tom's lawyer—a recommendation Margolis now deeply regrets. Sherman promoted himself as a public-relations expert who could undo the damage to the family's reputation caused by nearly a decade of Dunne's accusations. His appetite for the limelight turned out to be as voracious as Dunne's—but he was a much less effective spokesman.

Soon before the trial began, the Greenwich Time quoted Sherman as saying that his relations with Court TV had turned him into a "television lawyer." "We make fools of ourselves," he was quoted as saying, "in return for limo rides and cheap doughnuts in greenrooms." (Sherman now says he "disavows" that report.) The family was distressed by Sherman's seeming lack of attention to the trial, what they saw as his failure to prepare them adequately before their testimony, and his undisguised friendship with Dominick Dunne. On at least one occasion Sherman arrived at court in a limousine with Dunne; he spent at least one evening at Dunne's house, at a party. The day after the conviction Sherman told me that he was going to a Court TV party for Dunne. When I questioned the propriety of his attending, he said, "We're friends. What can I say, I'm a kiss-ass." (He now claims not to remember making this remark, but he recently said, "I make no apology for being cordial to Dunne. I got valuable information from him over the years.")

Following Michael's conviction Sherman startled CNN staffers with an unscheduled greenroom appearance to visit Dominick Dunne and Dorthy Moxley as the three awaited separate Larry King Live interviews. He told Moxley that he was "happy" for her. Dunne instantly reported the remark. At Michael's sentencing Sherman, quoting a probation report, said that Michael was "an entirely different person today than he was at fifteen." Both statements left public doubt that Sherman believed in his client's innocence—although Sherman protests that this was not his intent and told me he is certain that Michael is innocent.

Perhaps in recognition of Dunne's solicitude toward Ken Littleton, Sherman refused, Julie said, to allow her or the other Skakels to testify about the strong evidence against Littleton. When I asked Sherman during the trial why he was not aggressively questioning Littleton, he said, "He's a pathetic creature. I don't want to look like I'm beating up on him." When Sherman called Jack Solomon to the stand, Solomon appeared with a three-ring binder containing nearly three decades' worth of police information about Littleton and a summary of the state's case against him. That information might have proved critically valuable to Michael's defense. Sherman did not have the binder marked as an exhibit or placed in evidence.

Even before the trial began, Sherman failed to make an interlocutory appeal based on Michael's strongest legal argument—that the court no longer had jurisdiction to hear a case against anyone who was accused of a murder that took place in 1975, because at the time the statute of limitations for murder was five years. Sherman says that he thought the right time for such an appeal was "after the final judgment." (A state supreme court decision on the statute of limitations is now pending.) "The whole point of an interlocutory appeal," however, as Hope Seeley, the lawyer in charge of Michael's appeal, recently explained, "is not to have to wait for a final judgment—or endure the expense and emotion of a lengthy trial." An early victory in such an appeal would have deprived Sherman of the nationally publicized trial he expected would boost his career.

By the time Sherman's behavior became worrisome to the Skakels, it was too late to change lawyers, Julie told me: "We'd already paid Mickey a million dollars, and at that point it was too much." The family had originally been persuaded, they said, by Sherman's charm and confidence, and especially by his frequent assurances before the trial that he was in control and there was no chance Michael would be convicted.

Sherman allowed the seating on the jury of a policeman (unheard of in the world of criminal defense) and of someone who admitted to sharing a friend with the Moxleys. At the time, trial watchers were amazed at the speed of the jury selection and called it "unprecedented" for this type of case. Most disturbing, Sherman, as noted above, proved inept in countering Andrea Shakespeare Renna's ambiguous testimony that she was "under the impression" that Michael was in the Skakel house when she left. A more skillful cross-examination of Renna would have clearly revealed the weakness of her claim, since she could never give any explanation of her belief that Michael did not go to the Terriens'. Sherman should have objected to Renna's testimony because it was speculation not based on personal knowledge.

During the trial Sherman seemed more interested in trying to convince the members of the jury that he was affable and the press that he was television-ready. Judging by their subsequent remarks, he instead disgusted them. And despite the $150,000 the family says Sherman billed them for time he spent with the media, the public's impression of Michael Skakel couldn't have been more negative. Given the gift that every great defense lawyer yearns for, a genuinely innocent paying client, Sherman squandered a fortune and sacrificed Michael on the altar of his ego.

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

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