Skakel Trial moved to Norwalk.
By Jonathan Lucas - Greenwich Time

NORWALK -- The delay-plagued Stamford courthouse will not be ready in time to house the high-profile murder trial of Michael Skakel.

State judicial officials announced yesterday they are shifting the site of the trial to the Norwalk courthouse and are making preparations to begin jury selection as scheduled on April 2.

Skakel, a nephew of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, is accused of beating his 15-year-old Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley to death in 1975 with a golf club belonging to his family.

The decision to change the venue followed a meeting yesterday afternoon between the trial's presiding Judge John Kavanewsky Jr., state judicial officials, Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp and the city's Police Chief Harry Rilling.

Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, spokeswoman for the state Judicial Department, said the decision was made after officials learned the scheduled April 1 opening of the $90 million courthouse would be delayed.

Rather than hold the trial in the cramped confines of the existing Stamford courthouse, Stearley-Hebert said the state's chief court administrator opted to move the trial to a larger courtroom in Norwalk. She said the 173-seat courtroom will be large enough to accommodate the families of the victim and the defendant, as well as the media and the public.

Stearley-Hebert said the department would have preferred to use the new courthouse but is adjusting to deal with the expected construction delay.

The new brick and glass, eight-story Stamford courthouse has been more than 20 years in the planning and has experienced many delays during that time. Construction on the 25-courtroom building started in 1996 and was expected to be completed by the end of next month.

Pat Nolan, spokesman for the state Department of Public Works, which is overseeing the project, said work on the building is continuing as rapidly as possible, but added there is no guarantee they will meet the April 1 deadline.

"In this particular case we're pulling as hard as we always do to get the project done, but if we see a potential delay, we have to inform our client so they can make plans, which we've done," Nolan said.

Knopp and others in yesterday's meeting said the discussions centered on accommodating the masses of media and onlookers expected to attend the trial while maintaining the normal business of the criminal, family and housing courts with in the courthouse.

"The main purpose of the meeting was to bring myself and the Police Department up to date with what we could expect to happen if the trial took place in Norwalk," Knopp said. "We hope that we're doing all we can to make sure Norwalk puts its best foot forward to have an orderly, safe and respectful environment for a major trial."

The Norwalk courthouse has hosted other much-publicized trials, including the 1989 retrial of Richard Crafts, who was convicted of the wood chipper murder; and the 1998 trial of Redding landlord Geoffrey Ferguson, who was convicted of killing five young men in a rent dispute.

The murder of Moxley has drawn national attention and the state Judicial Department has received 45 requests for press credentials. Nineteen requests are from television outlets requiring parking spaces for satellite trucks near the courthouse.

To accommodate the trucks, courthouse employees may be forced to give up their parking spots behind the building on Belden Avenue and use the Yankee Doodle parking garage or the adjacent River View Plaza.

Knopp said he will ask the state to provide state troopers for additional security around the courthouse during the trial and may seek financial aid for any possible overtime costs incurred by Norwalk police for crowd and traffic control.

"It's not going to be anything we haven't done before," Rilling said, noting that his department has handled two presidential visits and annual Oyster Festival crowds of more than 20,000 people. "We're used to these kinds of things and we'll work with the courthouse, the media and the public to make sure it all goes off smoothly with as little inconvenience as possible."

Rilling said he would have preferred the trial remain in Stamford, but now that it is in Norwalk, he said he hopes it is wrapped up speedily.

"I'd like to see it go quickly, but who knows. These things sometimes tend to drag on," the chief said.

The move is not expected to have an impact on jury selection or the trial, according to State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict and defense attorney Michael Sherman.

"We're dealing with the same jury pool (as Stamford)," Sherman said. "It's just a question of locality. It's really a non-issue."

Benedict welcomed the change, saying he's anxious to get started.

"Any time, any place at all," Benedict said. "A courtroom is a courtroom -- plus, there's more places to eat lunch in Norwalk."

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