Skakel hearing will have unlikely setting
By Ryan Jockers - Greenwich Time

Juvenile court in Stamford is a small and quiet place that operates under a veil of secrecy.

But an unusual spectacle will unfold there tomorrow with the arraignment of Michael Skakel, the 39-year-old nephew of Ethel Kennedy charged with the murder of Martha Moxley in the gated community of Belle Haven nearly 25 years ago.

Skakel was arrested for murder on Jan. 19, but is being charged as a juvenile because he was 15 when Moxley, also 15, was killed on Halloween eve 1975.

If the media attention the Skakel case has received since his arrest is indicative, the Juvenile Matters division of Superior Court in Stamford may not be equipped to handle the expected horde of reporters and television news trucks expected to be on hand when Skakel walks into the courtroom with his attorney, Michael Sherman of Stamford.

The court, at 91 Prospect St., just north of downtown Stamford, occupies space above a small row of stores and offices.

Parking already is at a premium on the block, a busy neighborhood of shops, office buildings, condominiums and apartments. There is limited on-street space, with the public Bedford Street parking garage and some open municipal lots two blocks away.

There has been an additional crush in the area for the past two years during the ongoing construction of a new Superior Court building in around the corner on Hoyt Street. Superior Court parking was taken away during the building project, putting pressure on nearby streets, lots and private parking.

The volatility of a media circus in close-quarter confinement very well could be compounded by the now-you-see-him-now-you-don't element of the occasion. The prosecutor in the case, State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict, said the arraignment - by its very nature - will be brief.

"Maybe 90 seconds," he said.

It also is possible that the media will be allowed into the juvenile proceedings, which are normally closed to the press and public. A motion to open the courtroom proceedings was filed by several newspapers, including Greenwich Time and The (Stamford) Advocate. Judge Maureen Dennis is expected to decide on that motion today. Sherman said he won't oppose the motion.

Whether the trial will be held in juvenile court or state Superior Court also remains to be determined. Under the law in effect when the crime was committed in 1975, prosecutors have to show cause for the case to be moved to adult court.

Sherman, in a telephone interview on Friday, would not speculate on that aspect of the case. He said Benedict would make the motions and he did not want to anticipate what he will do.

In 1975, the maximum juvenile penalty for murder was four years. The maximum penalty for murder for an adult was 25 years to life.

Skakel also may be able to ask for dismissal of the charge by arguing that the statute of limitations for the crime has expired. Some lawyers say the 1975 law appears to impose a five-year statue of limitations on murder. Today there is no limit.

Benedict says a 1986 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling makes it clear that murder is a crime that can always be prosecuted.

Philip Russell, a criminal defense lawyer based in Greenwich, said Sherman has "a plethora of legal maneuvers available to him because of the enormous legal difficulties which prosecuting this ancient case poses."

Referring to the alleged admissions that Skakel made about the murder while at Elan School, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Maine, Russell speculated: "Friends of Michael Skakel are hopeful that these maneuvers will be successful, because a trial on the merits could be favorable for the prosecution in light of the great weight that a jury will ascribe to concessions in therapy reported by companion patients."

Sherman said his argument defending Skakel's innocence is that he simply did not kill Martha Moxley. "He did not do it," Sherman said. "I don't mean to be flip, but it's as simple as that and he has no clue who did."

Moxley was found beaten and stabbed to death on the grounds of her family's home with a golf club belonging to a set owned by the Skakels.

Skakel's older brother Thomas and the Skakel's live-in tutor at the time of the murder were both prime suspects for many years. In June 1998, a grand jury was convened, and after 18 months it issued a report that found probable cause to arrest Michael Skakel in the murder.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.