"Prosecutor Accuses Elder Skakel's Attorney of Delay Tactics" By J.A. Johnson Jr., Greenwich Time

A Florida prosecutor who has been helping Connecticut authorities to get Rushton Skakel Sr. before the grand jury investigating the 1975 Martha Moxley murder has accused Skakel's lawyer of stalling tactics to run out the clock on the murder probe's limited life span.

The attorney representing Skakel, a former Greenwich resident and father of two suspects in the unsolved murder, has obtained an extension that could delay a Florida appellate court's decision on a challenge to his subpoena until near the grand jury's June deadline.

"From Day One we knew this whole dog-and-pony show was to delay matters, and I don't see why they would abandon that strategy at the appellate level," Martin County Assistant State's Attorney Robert Belanger said Thursday.

The pending appeal challenges Martin County Judge John Fennelly's ruling that Skakel Sr. must testify, rejecting claims that the father of suspects Michael and Thomas Skakel is mentally incompetent to serve as a grand jury witness.

The elder Skakel's lawyer on Friday said the appeal is not meant to delay matters, but intended to ensure his client's right to due process. "We view protecting someone's constitutional rights as an important part of the process and not a delay," Palm Beach, Fla., attorney Richard Lubin said. "An incompetent witness should not be required to testify in court because their testimony is completely unreliable and puts an undue hardship on that person."

Connecticut prosecutors have said the elder Skakel's testimony is needed because they allege he attended a meeting at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Maine, during which his son Michael made admissions concerning Moxley's murder. Police have said Michael and Thomas Skakel, then 15 and 17, respectively, were with Moxley the night she was killed with a 6-iron from a set of golf clubs owned by the Skakel family, who lived across the street from the Moxleys in Belle Haven.

Skakel Sr. is the brother of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, widow of U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy. He now resides in Hobe Sound, Fla.

Appeals briefs were to have been filed in mid-February with the Florida 4th District Court of Appeals, but Lubin requested a 30-day extension because of a delay in the transfer of records from the lower court. It was soon learned that the delay stemmed from the loss of some court records. It was not until Feb. 25 that Belanger said a stipulation authenticating copies of the lost records, obtained from attorneys' files, was signed by himself and Lubin.

Belanger said the documents, including the Connecticut subpoena signed Aug. 17 by Superior Court Judge John Ronan, had been either lost or misplaced by Fennelly when he was reassigned to another Florida district court in January. The clock on the extension still had not begun ticking as of Friday because Lubin said he had yet to receive "the full record" from the Martin County court clerk's office. "We've done everything we can to get the records," the attorney said.

When Lubin does file his briefs, the prosecution will have another 30 days to respond, and Lubin will get an additional 15 days after that to get in the last word on the appeal. Belanger said the appellate court will have no deadline to render a decision, although he said justices will be made aware of the grand jury's limited life span.

The grand jury was convened to investigate the 23-year-old murder last June. By state statute, it had an initial deadline of six months to decide on an indictment, but it is allowed a maximum of two six-month extensions. The first extension expires in June, and the final extension, if needed, would expire in December.

Connecticut State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict, who is assisting the grand jury, however, said Thursday he was not yet keeping an eye on the clock. "All I can say is we have plenty of time, and I know we will be seeing Mr. Skakel eventually," Benedict said.

In addition to the appeal in Florida, another challenge of a potentially crucial grand jury witness is pending in Hartford. In December, a Superior Court judge ruled that the owner of the Maine rehab center where Michael Skakel allegedly made admissions as to the Moxley murder must testify. Michael Skakel's attorneys filed briefs with the state Appellate Court Feb. 26, arguing, among other things, that the testimony should not be allowed because it violates the doctor- patient privilege. Prosecutors have 30 days to respond.

Prosecutors have said Elan School owner Joseph Ricci's testimony is needed because Michael Skakel allegedly made the admissions upon being confronted by Ricci at the Poland Spring, Maine, rehab center. Several former residents and staff members of Elan School have already appeared before the Bridgeport grand jury, but their testimony would have to be disregarded as evidence should the Appellate Court rule against prosecutors on the privilege claim.

Belanger first accused Lubin of delaying tactics prior to Fennelly's ruling on Skakel Sr.'s competence. Lubin had forced a hearing in which he called on his client's wife, maid, priest and physicians to testify that the elder Skakel suffered from brain damage and a schizophrenic-type disorder that cause him to act bizarrely and have memory lapses. The prosecutor maintains that according to Florida law, the 74-year-old Skakel's competency is an issue that must be decided in Connecticut, and only should he be called as a witness during a trial.