Attorneys debate Skakel trial venue
By J.A. Johnson Jr.- Greenwich Time
STAMFORD - Where Michael Skakel will be tried for the 1975 murder of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley remains undecided, as a Superior Court judge yesterday reserved judgment after hearing arguments for holding the trial either in Stamford or Bridgeport.
Judge John Kavanewsky Jr. said he will issue a written decision prior to Skakel's April 18 probable cause hearing, after which a judge will determine whether there is enough evidence even to warrant Skakel's case going to trial.
The state's attorney's office in Bridgeport has requested that the case be transferred to that city because that is where felonies throughout Fairfield Country were prosecuted prior to the creation of the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District in October 1981. Skakel was not charged with the murder until January 2000.
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Susan Gill yesterday further argued that Skakel's case has a "history" of being prosecuted in Bridgeport, since it was in that city's Fairfield County Courthouse where the grand jury, beginning in 1998, met for 18 months while probing the unsolved Greenwich murder.
"Parts of this case have already been adjudicated at the Bridgeport courthouse," Gill told the judge, including open-court proceedings pertaining to confidentiality matters and similar issues concerning the grand jury investigation of the Moxley murder.
But Skakel's attorney, Michael Sherman, argued that under state law, the only valid reason for requesting a change of venue is when the defendant's right to a fair trial may have been compromised by pretrial publicity. Sherman alerted Kavanewsky to the statute, which states that cases may be transferred from one judicial district to another only with the consent of both the prosecution and defendant.
"Well, we don't agree," Sherman told the judge.
After the 40-minute hearing, Sherman told reporters he believed the prosecution wants the venue change solely for reasons of convenience.
"It would be artificial to transfer the case to the state's attorney's back yard just so they don't have to battle the traffic on I-95," Sherman said after the hearing.
During the hearing, Sherman noted that a Superior Court judge already has designated the Stamford courthouse as the site of the trial.
Sherman said even though he thought Skakel would receive a fair trial no matter where it is held, he believed his client was more likely to be judged by a jury of his peers if tried in Stamford.
In her Jan. 31 ruling that transferred Skakel's case from juvenile to adult court, Judge Maureen Dennis stated that the Stamford courthouse "is the most appropriate venue at this time, in that the murder of Martha Moxley was committed in the town of Greenwich, which falls within the judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk."
Skakel originally was arraigned as a juvenile because he was 15 when Moxley was murdered in the Belle Haven section of Greenwich.
In cross-examining the state's only witness at yesterday's hearing, Sherman elicited testimony that the practice of transferring cases involving crimes committed prior to October 1981 had been an unwritten rule, rather than as the result of state law or codified policy.
The witness was Steven Weiss, now supervisory assistant state's attorney in Stamford, who was chief court clerk when the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District was created. Weiss said he and Stamford State's Attorney Eugene Callahan met to discuss how to handle cases involving crimes committed in the former Fairfield district, but for which arrests were made in the newly created Stamford-Norwalk district.
"The rule we came up with, if the offense was committed before October 1981, that case would go to Bridgeport if the arrest was made after October 1981," Weiss testified under direct examination by Gill.
"But that rule is not written down?" Sherman asked.
"No," Weiss replied.
"Is there a memo (explaining the rule)?" Sherman asked.
"I don't think so," Weiss said.
Under that rule, Weiss testified, between four and seven cases were transferred from Stamford to Bridgeport. He said all of those transfers occurred within six months of the creation of the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District.
When asked if he could name the cases that were transferred under the rule, Weiss replied, "I cannot recall."
Although the courtroom exchanges between Sherman and Weiss remained cordial and professional, Sherman apparently could not help but appreciate the unique opportunity he had to cross-examine a prosecutor against whom he'd squared off countless times before.
After the hearing, Sherman said to Weiss, "You see, even honest people have trouble recollecting."