Contents | January/February 2003
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
More on crime from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"A Grief Like No Other" (September 1997)
Americans are fascinated by murders and murderers but not by the families of the people who are killed—an amazingly numerous group, whose members can turn only to one another for sympathy and understanding. By Eric Schlosser
"The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti" (March 1927)
Felix Frankfurter (who was later to sit on the United States Supreme Court) laid out the saga of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial from the day of the defendants' alleged crime to the day of their execution.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Cultural Meaning of the Kennedys" (December 4, 2002)
Articles by John F. Kennedy, Caitlin Flanagan, Thomas Mallon, and others offer insight into the Kennedy mystique.
The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2003
[Editor's Note: This
article, in slightly different form, was originally published in the
January-February 2003 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.]
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
by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
he 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
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
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
ust 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
he 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
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
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.
n 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
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?
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."
BAKER: I, I can't say right this minute. But you convinced me, this is what
I've been living with ...
LITTLETON: Um, um.
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
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, 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
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
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
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."
unne 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
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
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."
ominick Dunne and Mark Fuhrman discussed the case intensely at a Four Seasons
lunch in 1997. Dunne hosted a cocktail party for Fuhrman to introduce him
to Connecticut law-enforcement officials. According to Murphy, both men had
read the Sutton scenarios on Ken Littleton, Tom Skakel, and Michael, whom
the Greenwich police had rejected as a serious suspect. In Murder in Greenwich,
Fuhrman makes a stronger case against Tom than he does against Michael. Yet
he declares Michael the killer.
With breathtaking ease, and without apology to Tom for the years of tormenting
innuendo, Dunne turned his sights on Michael. "I firmly believe that Michael
Skakel killed Martha Moxley," he declared on Good Morning America in
March of 1999. On the CNN program Burden of Proof, when he was asked
whether he believed that Michael Skakel did it, he replied, "That is what
I absolutely firmly believe." To ease his own shift from Tom to Michael as
the designated murderer, Dunne simply made them partners in the cover-up.
In January of 2000 Dunne told ABC News, "I firmly believe Michael Skakel killed
Martha Moxley and that Tommy Skakel may have helped him move the body."
Fuhrman acknowledges in Murder in Greenwich that the Moxley murder
attracted him because it reminded him of the Simpson case: "money, power,
celebrity, deceit, corruption." On the day he began investigating the crime,
he repeated this formulation to Greenwich police officers when they asked
him about his interest in the case. Fuhrman had apparently decided before
he began his investigation that the killer must be a wealthy, powerful celebrity
who had corrupted the police.
In the book Fuhrman exposes the bias in one of his reasons for rejecting Littleton
as a suspect, which he says he did "early on": "Littleton had no money, no
powerful family behind him, no clout. If Littleton had murdered Martha Moxley,
he would not have gotten away with it." Being neither rich or famous, by Fuhrman's
reasoning, Littleton couldn't be guilty. Fuhrman might find comfort
in this view, which could also exonerate him from his central role in the
disastrous outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial: if O.J. was acquitted because
he was rich, then it was not because the prosecution's principal witness
was exposed as a racist and a perjurer.
Ignoring the fact that Littleton has changed his alibi
five times, Fuhrman boldly concludes, "While other suspects have had trouble
with their alibis, Littleton has always stuck to the same story." He explains
Littleton's failure to pass five lie-detector tests over a period of sixteen
years by arguing, "If Littleton is a paranoid, psychotic, bipolar alcoholic,
then how could [Greenwich police] expect him to pass any kind of polygraph?"
Garr dismissed Fuhrman's book to the New York Daily News as a cut-and-paste
rewrite of old newspaper stories and police files, and the Greenwich police
said that the book was "riddled with inaccuracies and contains no new information."
Nevertheless, the book lit a fire beneath Connecticut law-enforcement officials.
On July 10, 1998, one month after its publication, Connecticut authorities
convened a one-man grand jury consisting of Judge George Thim. The state's
attorney Jonathan Benedict took over the Moxley case and began a multimillion-dollar
effort to convict Michael Skakel.
A banner on the paperback of Murder in Greenwich advertises it as "the
book that spawned the Connecticut grand jury investigation." "I firmly believe,"
Dunne wrote in the October 2000 issue of Vanity Fair, "Murder in
Greenwich, for which I wrote the introduction, is what caused a grand
jury to be called after 25 years."
Right up until the convening of the grand jury, according to Fuhrman, the
Greenwich police and state investigators still considered Ken Littleton to
be their primary suspect. Why did they give him immunity? The state might
have concluded that a prosecution of Littleton—especially if it failed,
and any prosecution twenty-three years after the crime stood small chance
of success—would not end the public debate over their competence and
integrity but instead would inflame Fuhrman and Dunne, who had already accused
the police of giving the Skakels a pass by making Littleton the fall guy.
The only way to still the criticism was to prosecute a Skakel. And they
would need Littleton to testify without taking the Fifth—an action
that might suggest to the jury that the witness rather than the defendant
was guilty. The only way to compel Littleton to testify was to first
grant him immunity. The case against Michael was weak, but by indicting a
Skakel investigators could at least quiet Fuhrman's charges that they were
"sycophants" and "cowards." Dunne had already sent signals that his objectives
would be satisfied short of a conviction, as long as Michael was indicted.
"I just want to see this guy with handcuffs—humiliated," he told Burden
According to Fuhrman, members of Benedict's staff told him that they planned
to use Murder in Greenwich as the blueprint for the prosecution. In
fact, the state followed the book practically line by line. Michael's fuller
account was to become the crux of the state's case against him. Adopting Fuhrman's
theory, the state argued that Michael fabricated the masturbation story after
learning that Henry Lee, the forensic scientist, was about to conduct DNA
testing (which was not available in 1975) on evidence from the crime scene.
According to Fuhrman, Michael took this precaution to explain the presence
of his semen on Martha's body should any be found. In fact there was no semen
found, Michael's or anyone else's.
There are numerous problems with Fuhrman's theory. First, the tree in which
Michael said he had attempted to masturbate was a football field's length
from where Martha's body was found. The story would therefore not have explained
the presence of semen on or near Martha's body had any been found. Second,
Michael did not invent the story in the early nineties for his Sutton interview;
he has been telling it consistently for at least twenty-three years. Michael
told the story to his aunt, Mary Ellen Reynolds, a former nun, in 1979; to
his psychiatrists, Stanley Lese and Hyman Weitzen, in 1980; and to many friends
before the 1990s. I heard him tell it several times, beginning in 1983. The
prosecution's own witness Michael Meredith testified that he heard the story
from Michael in 1987 while staying at the Skakel home. Michael's explanation
for his failure to tell the story to the police in the first instance—adolescent
embarrassment and fear of a wrathful father—is plausible. As Jay Leno
suggested, referring to the Skakel trial, many people would rather be found
guilty of murder than be suspected of masturbating in a tree. Oddly, Michael's
lawyer, Mickey Sherman, never defended Michael against the accusation that
Michael had recently invented the story. I told Sherman several times during
the trial that I would testify about Michael's pre-Sutton recounting, but
I was never called.
Taking their cue from Fuhrman, prosecutors argued that Michael had killed
Martha in a drunken, jealous rage after seeing his older brother kiss her.
But Michael says, and other Skakels agree, that he was in love at the time
with a family friend, Francine Ziminsky. "Martha was cute," he told me when
I visited him in prison last September, "but every girl was cute to me." Michael
says that he was unaware of any romance between Martha and his brother. "I
never knew about Tom and Martha," he told me on the same visit, "until I heard
it on TV in 1998."
The next challenge was Michael's alibi. Connecticut law-enforcement officials
had in 1975 consulted the nation's pre-eminent forensic pathologist, Joseph
Jachimczyk, who established the time of Martha's death as 10:00 P.M. He based
his conclusion on the condition of Martha's bladder and the contents of her
stomach. Martha had eaten a grilled cheese sandwich at around six o'clock,
Dorthy Moxley said, and ice cream later; three ounces of undigested food was
found during her autopsy. The stomach normally clears most food in two to
three hours. That put the time of death between 9:30 and 10:00. The Connecticut
police consulted Detroit's medical examiner, Werner Spitz, and two New York
City deputy chief medical examiners, Michael Baden and John Devlin. All of
them generally concurred with Jachimczyk. The police also relied on nonmedical
indicators: barking dogs, Martha's curfew, and Dorthy Moxley's testimony that
she heard Martha cry out around 10:00. For twenty-five years the police operated
under the assumption that the murder occurred around 10:00 P.M. Michael's account for that time had been consistent since 1975. Three witnesses—John
Skakel, Jim Terrien, and Rush Skakel Jr.—all maintained from the first
time they were questioned that they had left with Michael for the Terriens'
house at 9:30, when Martha was still alive, and had returned at 11:20. John
passed a polygraph test that the police felt covered all four.
"For Michael's accusers to be correct, the time of death had to be moved up"
in order to get around his 10:00 alibi, Michael Baden, who later served as
the chief medical examiner for New York City, recently told me. While consulting
with the Connecticut police in the Moxley case, Baden had become friendly
with the Moxley family. At Dorthy Moxley's request, he acted as a liaison
between the Greenwich police and Mark Fuhrman, who despised each other, while
Fuhrman was researching Murder in Greenwich. In his book Fuhrman solved
the problem of Michael's alibi by simply asserting that food can remain in
the stomach for as long as six hours, and that the murder might therefore
have occurred as late as 1:30 A.M.
At the trial Connecticut's former chief medical examiner, Elliot Gross—who
had performed the autopsy and had been called to testify for the prosecution—was
never put on the stand. Instead, while the original medical examiner sat idle,
Connecticut's current chief medical examiner, Wayne Carver, was called as
the expert witness on a case he had never worked on. Based on his reading
of Gross's autopsy report, Carver testified that the murder might have occurred
as late as 1:30. Sherman's cross-examination was anemic and brief. He asked
Carver a single question: Could the murder have occurred at 9:30? Carver answered
yes. Sherman sat down. When he read the transcript, Baden told me, "I was
very surprised. He never asked Carver the key question: What was the basis
of his opinion that the time of death could be both 9:30 and 1:30?"
Prosecutors relied heavily on the Fuhrman-Dunne view of the Skakels as conducting
a coordinated cover-up. Both writers assume that all the Skakels concluded
from the outset that one of the boys had committed the murder, and immediately
circled the wagons. Fuhrman says in his book that the Catskills trip was an
"opportunity for the Skakels to confer away from Belle Haven and the Greenwich
police." He writes, "If Littleton had committed the murder, I doubt the Skakels
would have brought him up to Windham ... Since the hunting trip was most probably
a legal confab, Littleton was brought along because he knew something—or
the Skakels thought he knew something—that was very important." This
theory became crucial to the prosecution's case—even though Littleton
testified at the trial that it had been his idea to drive the boys to the
Catskills for the weekend, to get them away from the ghoulish scene in Greenwich.
The theory of an intricately organized Skakel conspiracy is comical to anyone
who knows the family—as neither Fuhrman nor Dunne does. Jim Terrien
and Rush Jr. would have been critical to any such conspiracy, as would Tom
Skakel. But neither Jim nor Rush was at Windham, though both Fuhrman and the
prosecutors implied otherwise. Rush drove to Washington, D.C., on Halloween
morning for a Georgetown University homecoming—unaware that Martha,
whom he had never met, was dead. The prosecution's theory supposes that Michael
killed Martha in a jealous rage toward his "nemesis," brother Tom, who then
helped Michael to cover up the murder of the girl with whom he'd had a sexual
encounter only hours before. The theory requires that Michael, a drunken teenage
murderer, had the clarity to clean himself up, dispose of the murder weapon,
and take an active role in maintaining a conspiracy that remained drum-tight
for nearly thirty years.
The Skakel clan may be troubled—alcoholism runs in the family, and although
they are kind and generous to a fault, some family members can be impulsive,
irresponsible, and reckless. They have made a series of disastrous decisions
about how to handle this case. But they are not murderers or conspirators.
They are deeply religious and lack the moral bankruptcy to carry personal
loyalty to the level of depravity—much less the organizational discipline
and the cohesiveness to either form or perpetuate such a conspiracy.
I have spoken to all the Skakels about the murder, and they are as confused
as various investigators have been over the years about who committed the
crime. I have heard different Skakels speculate about the possible guilt of
a diverse list of suspects. (Interestingly, most of them told me they have
long believed that the strongest evidence points not to Ken Littleton but
to Franz Wittine, the former Skakel gardener. After the police and private
investigators turned their attention from Wittine to Littleton, early in the
case, they never returned intensively to Wittine.) All of the Skakels want
to see Martha's killer in jail. None of them ever imagined that Michael would
be charged, much less convicted of the crime.
But none of them would lie to protect Michael. Even when during the trial
Julie understood Sherman's instructions as a "request to lie" under oath,
she refused with the full support of her brothers. At the trial Andrea Shakespeare
(now Renna) testified that the night of the murder, before being driven home
by Julie Skakel after dinner, she was "under the impression" Michael was still
in the Skakel house after the older boys had left for Jim Terrien's—highly
ambiguous and uncertain testimony that nonetheless gave jurors reason to doubt
Michael's alibi. According to Julie and Stephen Skakel, on the morning that
Julie was to testify at Michael's trial, Sherman assembled the two of them;
Sherman's legal assistant, Jason Throne; and his son, Mark, who is also a
lawyer, at Julie's home. Sherman told Julie, she says, "You have to say that
you remember that the boys were still at the house when you took Andrea home."
Julie replied, "I can't, that's not true." Sherman admonished her, "You have
to—it's the only way." Julie again refused. Stephen later found her
weeping outside the courthouse. According to Stephen, she was devastated by
the prospect that her refusal to lie might put Michael in jail. Stephen told
me that he found Jason Throne and begged him to get Sherman to back off. "I
told him, 'You can't do this, she's going to have a nervous breakdown.'"
Sherman denies that he ever told Julie to lie. "We would never have asked
her to perjure herself," he told me. "I just asked her to add two and two
and come up with four, not five or seven." He explained to me that the Skakels
were difficult witnesses, refusing to testify even to obvious facts unless
they had clear memories. He cited the example of Rush Jr., who clearly remembered
Michael's being at the Terriens' but refused to testify that Michael was in
the car that went to the house: twenty-seven years later, he had no clear
memory of who was in the car. John Skakel refused to testify about any of
the events that night, because he had no independent memories of the details
of the evening. John would agree only to testify that he told the truth to
the police in 1975; the police report records his saying that Michael was
in the car and at the Terriens' house. "They were impossible to deal with,"
Sherman told me. The children's scrupulousness might have worked against Michael:
post-verdict interviews quoted jury members as saying they regarded the Skakels'
memory gaps not as the product of rigorous honesty but as obfuscation.
Connecticut prosecutors still had the problem of evidence. They had no fingerprints,
no DNA, and no witnesses. There was a good deal of physical evidence, but
none that could be tied to anyone. Where were the prosecutors to find witnesses
to flesh out the Dunne-Fuhrman speculations?
very 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
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
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.
ichael'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
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.
he person who murdered Martha Moxley was a demon—mean and vicious. Dunne
and Fuhrman's portrayal therefore required that Michael be demonized. Dunne
depicted Michael as a spoiled rich kid with unlimited money and a lavish lifestyle,
and claimed that his father had feigned mental illness to avoid testifying in
court. In fact Rushton Skakel suffers from debilitating and progressive dementia,
diagnosed in 1992. Except on rare occasions he is unable to recognize his children.
His attorneys and his children are now selling Rushton's house, liquidating
trusts, and pooling family funds to pay Michael's legal bills. Since the conviction
the family has come together, taking an active interest in the quality of Michael's
legal representation and becoming thoroughly familiar with the details of his
case. They hired the firm of Santos and Seeley to represent him in his appeal,
which most likely will be heard in September.
Rather than being someone who "wallowed in" self-pity, as Dunne suggests, or
is overwhelmed by his troubles, Michael remains highly motivated. He got sober
in 1982, at age twenty-one, and has given his life to service ever since. Dunne
portrays a man riding on his relationship with the Kennedys. But Michael never
identified himself as a "Kennedy cousin." On the contrary, the Kennedy and Skakel
families were never close. The Skakels were Republicans who took steps against
my father that my mother considered hurtful, and the families' relationship
was distant for many years. I rarely saw the Skakel boys growing up, and would
not have been able to identify Michael or his brothers in 1975. The Skakels
have a rightful pride in their own family.
When I finally did get to know Michael, he was struggling with addiction. For
twenty years I have watched him overcome, with notable personal strength, his
genetic and cultural burdens and make himself a productive member of society.
After getting sober he went back to school, fought an uphill battle against
dyslexia, and graduated from Curry College. Despite his bulk, he is a superb
athlete, and his hard work and brutal training regimen earned him a place on
the U.S. national speed-skiing team in 1993. In October he celebrated twenty
years of sobriety without any slips. His primary passion is helping other alcoholics
Almost nothing the press wrote about Michael was true. Dominick Dunne made himself
the arbiter in virtually every public discussion about the Moxley case: he promoted
his agenda in Vanity Fair and on practically every talk show on the air.
He branded Michael with a new first name, "Kennedy cousin," and drove the national
press into a Lord of the Flies frenzy to lynch the fat kid. Unfortunately,
the national press corps, seduced by a celebrity trial, rarely questioned Dunne's
mischaracterizations. Dunne boasted on Larry King Live
the week after Michael's conviction that the case, along with his coverage
of previous high-profile crimes, had made him a celebrity. He told King that
his new status afforded him front-row seats in the courthouse and acknowledgement
from judges and accolades on the street for a job well done, which he said were
what he most enjoyed. A New York Times article from the same day quoted
him as saying, "Ever since I was a kid I wanted a famous person's life."
The article observed that covering these crimes gave Dunne the opportunity to
indulge "his fascination with celebrities and high society" and
"his vengeful streak." And the Skakels were hampered in defending
both Tom and Michael by their principled unwillingness to point the finger at
As someone who grew up revering the American justice system as nearly infallible,
I share Dominick Dunne's indignation that a skillful defense lawyer, in the
service of a wealthy client, can get a guilty defendant acquitted. However,
it is even more dismaying that, as every district attorney knows, a skillful
prosecutor can persuade a jury to convict an innocent man—a fact attested
to by the numerous DNA exonerations of death-row inmates in recent years. As
Dunne and Fuhrman know, juries make mistakes. The law acknowledges the power
of a prosecutor's office in the doctrine of "prosecutorial discretion," which
allows prosecutors to refuse a winnable case if they believe that injustice
might result. A prosecutor has a duty to exercise independent judgment and not
cave in to public opinion or the goading of a celebrity journalist. But sometimes
political heat leads a prosecutor to proceed with a case when his better judgment
tells him to take a pass.
In the Moxley case, after resisting the temptation to prosecute for twenty-three
years, Connecticut gave Littleton full immunity and then spent millions to convict
Michael. The prosecution had so little faith in its underlying case that during
the trial Dorthy Moxley had to make a public plea for more witnesses to come
forward, and Jonathan Benedict made a last-minute attempt to add to the original
charges a manslaughter count, which carried the possibility of no jail time.
But that was before Benedict's brilliant summation. During the last ten minutes
Benedict unveiled a dramatic and sophisticated multimedia display that some
legal analysts have since criticized as deceptive and prejudicial. The display
superimposed Michael's statements, out of context, on gruesome pictures of Martha's
slain body. In a 1998 taped interview with a ghostwriter for what was to be
an autobiography, Michael had described his reaction when he was awakened in
a daze on Halloween morning by Dorthy Moxley. "Michael, have you seen Martha?"
she asked. Michael did not then know that Martha was dead; he said on the tape
that he was panicked that Mrs. Moxley might have witnessed his masturbating—a
context never explained by the prosecution when they played the tape for the
jury. "And I was like, 'Oh, my God, did they see me last night?' And I'm like
I don't know and I remember just having a feeling of panic, like, oh shit you
know like my worry of what I went to bed with, I don't know. You know what I
mean, I had a feeling of panic."
As the prosecution played the audiotape, Michael's words appeared on a giant
screen, turning red and exploding in size. Each time Michael said the word "panic,"
the display flashed a crime-scene photo of Martha's body. Observers, including
Dominick Dunne, credited Michael's conviction to this dramatic summation.
There were at least four other suspects against whom the state could have marshaled
enough circumstantial evidence to indict. With Benedict's brilliant techniques
and a jury eager to give the Moxleys justice, any of those suspects might have
been convicted. The desire for closure apparently trumped the critical principle
that guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. It was Mickey Sherman
who pointed out that the case was like musical chairs, and that Michael Skakel
got caught standing when the music stopped.
"Notorious crimes have to be very carefully prosecuted," Michael Baden, New
York's former chief medical examiner, recently told me, "because it is so easy
to get a conviction without physical evidence. This is the very time to be more
cautious, not less cautious, so that a bad decision isn't made because of an
inflamed public. Look at the five kids in the Central Park jogger case. There
was no trace evidence—but with notorious cases, jurors can find you guilty
Dunne continues to make an industry out of the Moxley murder. Most recently
he parlayed his role in the case into a new Court TV series he hosts—Dominick
Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice. Mark Fuhrman has also done well: the
USA Network last fall aired a highly fictionalized docudrama based on Fuhrman's
Murder in Greenwich, lionizing Fuhrman for his role in solving the Moxley
murder. According to press reports, Fuhrman's newest book is a far-fetched effort
to link the death by alcoholic overdose of a man named Christopher O'Connor,
last seen being beaten by bouncers outside a Queens nightclub, to the Kennedy
Dunne's objective since 1991 has been to link the crime to a "Kennedy cousin,"
whether it was Will Smith, John Kennedy, Tom Skakel, or Michael Skakel. Describing
the day of Michael's guilty verdict, Dunne crowed in Vanity Fair, "The
whole courtroom stared at [Michael], transfixed by his humiliation. This trial
has ruined a once proud family. Their besmirched name will outlive them all."
In Vanity Fair's December issue Dunne makes the wild claim (which he
repeated on Larry King Live) that he has information from a mysterious
source that four others were involved in cleaning up the crime scene with Michael.
Dunne says he has "contempt for the behavior of the Skakel family" because they
came from privilege and abused it. Fuhrman echoes him: "[The Skakels] lived
a privileged existence" and they "frequently abused that privilege." But the
capacity to write, to publish, and to hold public attention are privileges that
Dunne and Fuhrman have abused. The media have duties too.
At its best, every profession—law, science, medicine, journalism—is
a search for the truth. But personal bias can distort and pervert that mission.
As one who has experienced the murder of family members, I sympathize with Dunne's
anguish over his daughter's murder. But the worst dishonor to her memory is
that her death has inspired not a search for justice but a campaign of revenge,
with an innocent man its victim.
What do you think? Discuss this article
in the Politics & Society conference of Post
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is an environmental attorney and a professor at Pace University Law School.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January/February 2003; A Miscarriage of Justice; Volume 291, No. 1; 51-74.