Court rejects appeal by Skakel
By Martin B. Cassidy - Greenwich Time
January 14, 2006
Turning aside arguments on statutes of limitations and misconduct by prosecutors, the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld the murder conviction of Michael Skakel for the bludgeoning death of his Greenwich neighbor more than 30 years ago.
Skakel, 45, has been serving a sentence of 20 years to life since June 2002, when a jury found him guilty of beating Martha Moxley to death with a golf club on the evening of Oct. 30, 1975, when they were both 15. Authorities didn't arrest Skakel until 2000.
Moxley's mother, Dorthy Moxley, said the decision was a relief, although she is bracing herself for another round of uncertainty regarding Skakel's request for a new trial in state court.
"This was a really big hurdle to me," Moxley said. "I feel just like, 'Wow, good, we don't have to worry about that now, anymore,' and I just want to enjoy this for the moment."
The Skakel family yesterday issued a statement condemning the decision.
"A grave injustice took place in 2002 and now again today," read a statement from John Skakel, Michael Skakel's brother. "Our brother Michael has been branded a killer for a crime he did not commit. We believe 100 percent in Michael's innocence."
Skakel, in a handwritten statement released by his lawyers, condemned the decision and proclaimed his continued innocence in large letters.
"I AM Innocent!!! The only thing the State of Connecticut has accomplished . . . is putting innocent father behind bars!" Skakel wrote. "I DID NOT Murder Martha!"
In the statement, dated yesterday from MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, in Suffield, Skakel wrote he was a victim of an unfair trial and court system.
"Unfortunately . . . I have only learned just how seriously "FLAWED" this criminal justice system is. It truly is a tragedy."
The appeal was filed in late 2003, with arguments made last January by Skakel's defense attorney Hope Seeley, and Assistant State Attorney Susann Gill, representing the state. The 89-page opinion was written by Justice Richard Palmer, with six other justices concurring.
Skakel's only remaining route of appeal is to the U.S. Supreme Court, although a petition seeking a new trial filed last fall in state Superior Court in Stamford is still pending.
That petition is based on alleged juror misconduct and new statements that two New York youths committed the murder.
Gitano "Tony" Bryant, a cousin of basketball star Kobe Bryant, has said he and friends were in Belle Haven the day Moxley was killed. His friends later allegedly made incriminating statements to Bryant, according to Skakel's defense.
Prosecutors have said they are skeptical of that claim.
Seeley said the defense will file a motion for reconsideration by the Connecticut Supreme Court in the coming weeks, and also may seek a writ of habeus corpus in state court seeking a new trial, contending Skakel received ineffective assistance of counsel in his trial.
The court overturned precedent to rule against Seeley's argument that a five-year statute of limitation should have barred prosecutors from bringing a non-capital murder charge against Skakel in 2000.
The court ruled that, since the law was amended in 1976 to include the crime for which Skakel was accused, before the five-year statute of limitation elapsed, he was still liable to prosecution in 2000.
In doing so, the court overruled its 1982 decision in State v. Paradise, cited by the defense, that had ruled that the statute of limitation could not be applied to crimes before 1976.
In a nine-page concurring opinion, Justice Joette Katz concluded there was never a statute of limitation on murder.
"There were two ways they could have approached the statute of limitations: by overruling State v. Paradise or by ruling there was never a statute of limitations on murder in Connecticut," Gill said. "They did both."
The court relied on legislative intent in its ruling, said William Dunlap, a professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden.
"If the court had wanted to, it could have read all the statutes of limitations literally and found it was too late to bring this case," Dunlap said. "They seem to have looked very closely at the legislative intent."
The court also ruled that the transfer of Skakel's case to adult court was proper, given regulations that no one over 18 could be admitted to a program for juveniles, the same argument prosecutors used.
Seeley had argued that since Skakel was a minor at the time the crime occurred, he should have been charged in juvenile court.
The court found that the lack of juvenile facilities suitable to treating or incarcerating a 40-year-old Skakel also reinforced the transfer to adult court.
The court found that prosecutors conducted themselves within the normal realm of legal persuasion, and that their arguments drew from the record of evidence.
The appeal contended that the prosecution's use of a multimedia presentation during the trial, and specifically during their summation, distorted Skakel's words and made it appear he admitted his guilt.
In the presentation, prosecutors juxtaposed a tape of Skakel in which he confessed "panic" at seeing Dorthy Moxley the morning after the murder, with pictures of a smiling Martha Moxley and then of her partially clad body as it was discovered.
The court found the presentation included only evidence that had been admitted during trial, and the defense did not object to it at trial.
"Everything that was on our disk were pieces of evidence presented at the trial," Gill said. "All we did was present it in what we hoped was a more effective way."
The court ruled against Skakel's appeal on a range of evidentiary issues.
The defense contended the state should have turned over a composite sketch of a man seen in Belle Haven the night of the murder that looked like another suspect in the case, but the court said Skakel's team had failed to request it, despite several mentions of the sketch in papers disclosed to the defense.
"The facts fully support the trial court's determination that the defendant failed to establish that the state suppressed the composite drawing," Palmer's opinion said.
Skakel's lawyers also said jurors should not have been allowed to hear confessions of guilt that they contend were made under duress during therapy sessions at the Elan School in Maine in the late 1970s. In the trial, the state used the recorded testimony of the late Greg Coleman, a classmate of Skakel's at Elan. The court found Skakel's defense had failed to raise objections during the trial and their admission was proper.
The court also rejected defense arguments that the prosecution had made inflammatory statements during the trial.
Dunlap said the opinion was impressively thorough, leaving none of the issues unresolved.
"It's very carefully crafted and thoroughly reasoned in its decisions," Dunlap said. "They took every one of Skakel's claims and treated them very seriously and explained why they are not accepting Skakel's arguments."
Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano and state's attorney Jonathan Benedict, who prosecuted Skakel in the 2002 trial, deferred credit to Gill, who argued the appeal before the court.
"It was not unexpected," Gill, who wrote the prosecution's brief, said of the ruling. "We felt that we had very solid evidence and reasoning going into the appeal and excellent and well-reasoned decisions by the lower court trial judge."
Morano said he had also expected the state to prevail.
"We had the utmost confidence in the brief and the argument we put forth," Morano said. "This is really Susann Gill's day, she did just an excellent job of presenting the case."
Seeley said that the admission of Coleman's deposition as evidence in the trial put Skakel at a disadvantage because jurors could not see Coleman, who was a heroin addict at the time he gave his statement.
"It was unusual under the circumstances of the case that this was a major witness against Mr. Skakel and the jury was not able to view his demeanor and body language given he had a history of being a heroin addict," Seeley said. "They were robbed of an important consideration."
Dunlap said the issue involving Coleman's testimony would be the most likely basis for a U.S. Supreme Court appeal on the grounds it violated Skakel's Sixth Amendment rights.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right of suspects to confront their accusers, and Seeley's argument that the deceased Coleman's deposition was hearsay, because he could not be cross-examined, seems like Skakel's best constitutional argument, Dunlap said.
"I think it is unlikely that this rises to the level, but the hearsay issue could conceivably go to the United States Supreme Court," Dunlap said. In her statement, Seeley made no reference to a future U.S. Supreme Court challenge, but did mention the petition for a new trial.
"Michael Skakel is innocent and he will fight his wrongful conviction and incarceration," Seeley said. "The petition for a new trial, already pending in state court, raises substantial issues relating to new evidence never before considered by a jury or a court."
Morano said he expected further litigation on the verdict but that state attorneys were prepared to respond.
"We are cognizant of the fact that he is represented by very innovative, creative and experienced attorneys and, no doubt, we will have to deal with litigation in this case in the future," Morano said. "No matter where it is filed, we will be there to protect this verdict and to ensure it is not disturbed."
Benedict said a U.S. Supreme Court challenge could be filed, but it is unlikely to be taken up.
"I don't think there were any federal issues in the appeal so I don't anticipate them petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court," Benedict said. Seeley said she did not know when future court filings would be made in the case and declined to specify criticisms of Skakel's trial representation by Stamford attorney Michael Sherman.
Sherman said he felt no rancor about Seeley's potential writ, which would be critical of his representation.
"Do I have any regrets about how I conducted the case?" he asked. "No."
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