Judge assigned to oversee Skakel case
By Kerry Tesoriero - Greenwich Time

Michael Skakel's murder trial stemming from the 1975 slaying of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley was assigned yesterday to state Superior Court Judge John F. Kavanewsky Jr.

That doesn't mean that Kavanewsky, a Norwalk resident who presides over the criminal dockets in Superior Court in Stamford, will preside over the trial himself. As case-flow manager, Kavanewsky will have the power to assign portions of the case to himself or other Superior Court judges.

Three retired judges who regularly sit as trial referees in the Stamford courthouse could be assigned to handle portions of Skakel's case. They include Judge Martin Nigro, Judge Richard Tobin and Judge James Bingham.

Which judge will hear the trial remains undetermined. Yesterday, area attorneys offered insights into how Kavanewsky or other judges might handle what is arguably the state's highest-profile case in decades.

Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Skakel Kennedy and the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, is accused of beating Moxley to death with a six-iron from a set of golf clubs belonging to his mother. The two 15-year-olds were neighbors in the gated Belle Haven section of Greenwich.

"I'm sure whoever the case is assigned to, he'll get a fair trial," said Philip Russell, a Greenwich defense attorney. "It's a serious charge. Nobody is going to take the presumption of innocence lightly."

Kavanewsky is known by attorneys for making careful and unrushed decisions on the law.

"He's very patient," Stamford attorney Matthew Maddox said. "I think particularly in this case, where there's anticipated to be a great number of defense issues, he's likely to tolerate and deliberate on every issue fairly carefully."

Such caution might make the prosecution of Skakel's case lengthier than some may desire, but it also will provide a trial court record with fewer opportunities for a verdict to be appealed, Maddox said.

In recent months Kavanewsky has presided over two murder trials.

The latest was that of Norwalk resident Michael Tomlin, who was convicted last month of first-degree manslaughter for the shooting death of Arley Zapata, a former Norwalk High School football player. Tomlin faces five to 40 years in prison when sentenced March 13.

In December, Kavanewsky oversaw the murder trial of Travis Wright, a Stamford teenager who a jury convicted of first-degree manslaughter for fatally stabbing a 49-year-old homeless Polish immigrant, Wieslaw Tarnowski. Kavanewsky sentenced Wright last week to 17 years in prison.

Wright, 19, is appealing the verdict, in part objecting to Kavanewsky's decision to twice send the jury back into deliberations after they said they could not reach a unanimous verdict.

Kavanewsky, 47, was born in Norwalk. He received both his undergraduate and law degrees from Wake Forest University and was admitted as an attorney in 1978 in Connecticut.

He began his law career as an assistant prosecutor in San Diego, Calif., in 1980.

Later, he practiced civil and criminal litigation in Connecticut, making a name for himself as a defense attorney with the Norwalk firm of Busek, Kavanewsky & Genuario, where he was a partner.

He was a state attorney trial referee from 1991 to 1993. In 1992 and 1993, he was an alternate member of the statewide Grievance Committee in the Fairfield Judicial District. He began his first eight-year term as a Superior Court judge in 1994.

He replaced Judge Richard Comerford last year as presiding criminal judge in the Stamford courthouse, overseeing the flow of all criminal cases there.

Retired Judge Martin Nigro, who serves often in the Stamford courts as a trial referee, would approach the case with similar care. But his vast experience overseeing such serious and high-profile cases might allow him to decide on issues faster, Maddox said.

Nigro presided over the trial of Geoffrey Ferguson, a former Redding landlord convicted of five murder charges for shooting five men in their heads in 1995, three of them tenants. The house they rented was set afire after the shootings, leaving four of the bodies burned beyond recognition. The case is considered one of Connecticut's worst mass murders in decades.

Nigro also presided in 1989 over the infamous wood-chipper murder trial of Richard Crafts, who killed his wife, Helle, in 1986 in their Newtown home, shredding her body in a wood chipper. Nigro sentenced Crafts to 50 years in prison.

Nigro sat on the first trial of Darien rapist Alex Kelly for his attack on former Darien resident Adrienne Bak Ortolano. The judge declared a mistrial in that case after a jury announced it was hung. Kelly was retried in 1997, convicted and later sentenced to 16 years in prison.

The trial of John "Name" Ruffin, a Stamford street gang leader accused in the 1993 Southfield Village slaying of 4-year-old Jasmine Merced, also was overseen by Nigro. Ruffin was acquitted of murder but convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the girl's shooting death. Ruffin, who Russell defended, was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Russell defended former Stamford resident Leroy Gettes at trial before Nigro for the 1993 slaying of John Henderson, owner of an Atlantic Street store. Gettes was found guilty by the jury of felony murder, and Nigro sentenced him to 80 years in prison. Gettes has yet to serve that sentence, because Nigro ordered him sent back to New York State to serve out a sentence there of 25 years to life in prison, Russell said.

Nigro, 71, of Greenwich, received an undergraduate degree from Fairfield University and a law degree from Yale University. He was admitted as an attorney in 1954. He was previously a prosecutor assigned to state Superior Court in Stamford and a partner with the law firm of Heagney, Lennon & Nigro.

Judge Bingham typically presides over the long daily dockets of lower-level crimes. Tobin was recently assigned to oversee a new domestic violence docket that will be implemented Thursday.

Whoever presides, Maddox predicted that if a jury convicts Skakel of murder, "he'll be clobbered," by the sentencing judge.

"It's a grisly murder, and there are a number of aggravating factors in the actual offense," that might justify a long prison sentence, Maddox said



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