High marks for Moxley prosecutor
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

It's a murder mystery that's baffled authorities for more than two decades, but the word around Bridgeport criminal courts is if anyone can bring Martha Moxley's killer to justice, it's State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict.

The 53-year-old prosecutor has been described by colleagues on both sides of the bar as a circumspect and methodical lawyer who never would have sought an arrest in the 1975 Greenwich homicide if he did not believe he could bring the case to trial and win a conviction.

"Many times when state's attorneys read a file or a police investigation report they believe everything they've read without any consideration of how it's going to play out in the courtroom. They don't analyze a case as to what they can and cannot prove," Bridgeport defense attorney James Ruane said. "With Jon Benedict - first and foremost - his approach is, 'Can I prove this case?' "

Ruane, who has been representing criminal defendants at state Superior Court in Bridgeport for 23 years, said he's lost more cases than he's won when going up against Benedict, who claims a conviction rate of 85 percent.

In his prosecutorial career, Benedict has brought more than 100 felony cases to trial, including some 45 murder cases that went to verdict. Benedict said about 10 percent of his convictions were overturned on appeal.

Among his more notable achievements was winning a conviction in the first Connecticut murder trial to rely primarily on DNA evidence. In 1992 a jury found Trumbull house painter Tevfik Sivri guilty of murdering Carla Almeida, a 22-year-old Meriden masseuse. Almeida disappeared after giving Sivri a massage at his home in April 1988. Although the victim's body was not found, Benedict won a conviction at trial on the basis the DNA from blood found in the trunk of Sevri's car matched DNA from blood samples taken from the victim's parents.

The verdict was overturned after the Appellate Court found the judge had improperly instructed the jury prior to its deliberations. By the time of the second trial in 1995, Almeida's skeletal remains, including a skull with a bullet hole, had been found. Benedict won a conviction in the re-trial as well.

Sivri's defense attorney in the second trial was Assistant Public Defender Miles Gerety. Commenting on Benedict's ability to convict his client without a body during the first trial, "That's just an example of a prosecutor who can take new law and new science and present it to the jury effectively."

Benedict has frequently been in the news over the past year for his prosecution of another case, the January 1999 double-murder of 8-year-old Leroy "B.J." Brown Jr. and his mother, Karen Clarke. B.J. was to testify as a witness in a homicide case when he and his mother were executed, allegedly by a defendant in the original murder case. The young boy's murder, which resulted in the arrests of three alleged co-conspirators, led to reform of the state's witness protection program. The trials for the double killings are scheduled to start next month.

"At the same time he's working with the grand jury for the Moxley case, he's handling an extremely high-profile double murder, multiple-defendant case," Deputy Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano said. "That is a very hard task, and Jonathan Benedict is one of the few people who could do that type of thing."

In obtaining a warrant for the Jan. 19 arrest of Moxley's alleged murderer, 39-year-old Michael Skakel, Benedict relied on a probable cause finding by a grand jury that spent 18 months investigating the homicide. But he had more than the report itself - he had the same knowledge as did the one-man grand jury, Superior Court Judge George Thim. As prosecutor in the case, Benedict was inside Thim's sealed courtroom and saw all of the evidence and heard all of the testimony that the grand juror did.

It came as no surprise to those who know Benedict that an arrest warrant was sought and obtained in a case that others had thought was unsolvable without a confession.

"It tells me that he thinks he can get the case to a jury and that he believes he has sufficient proof to go all the way," Ruane said.

Skakel was arraigned on a charge of murder March 14. Although he has yet to enter a plea, his defense lawyer, Michael Sherman, maintains his client is innocent.

As the son of a well-respected small-town attorney, Benedict knew he wanted to be a lawyer at a young age. Although Howard Benedict never sat young Jonathan down and imparted words of wisdom his son would carry into a career in the legal profession, the elder Benedict led by example.

"My father was the most ethical person and most ethical lawyer I've ever known," Benedict said.

Benedict graduated from Fairfield College Preparatory School, a fact that is still a source of ribbing from some colleagues who refer to him as the "preppie" prosecutor.

He earned a bachelor's degree at Pennsylvania's Lafayette College in 1968, the same year he was shipped off to Vietnam. He served with the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of first lieutenant and, in addition to leading a platoon, he briefly commanded a company that was running convoys in support of the South Vietnamese army's invasion of Laos.

After his military discharge, Benedict entered St. John's University School of Law in New York, earning his law degree in 1974. He joined his father as an associate with Ostmark, Reinhart & Benedict, and left the Fairfield law firm in 1976 to become assistant prosecuting attorney with the Office of the Chief State's Attorney in Woodbridge.

"I had the idea I wanted to gain some trial experience, and I found out very quickly that I enjoyed prosecuting cases," Benedict said.

In 1977 Benedict became an assistant state's attorney for the Bridgeport-based Fairfield Judicial District, where he has prosecuted ever since. He was promoted to state's attorney with the 1997 retirement of longtime head prosecutor Donald Browne.

Gerety, a Bridgeport public defender since 1987, said he attributes Benedict's successes to not only a command of the legal issues in the cases he prosecutes, but also to a courtroom demeanor that juries find reassuring.

"He's not flamboyant or loud, and that has been very effective with jurors," Gerety said. "I much more prefer to go up against a prosecutor who shouts, who is dramatic and over-reaches by asking the jury to make absurd leaps (of faith). His style can be fairly lethal to the defense."

Frank Riccio, a Bridgeport criminal defense attorney for 31 years, said, "Jonathan Benedict simply puts the evidence before the jury and moves on."

The investigation of the 1975 bludgeoning death of the 15- year-old Moxley fell under the Fairfield Judicial District's jurisdiction. Browne was criticized for his stewardship of the case, especially for his reluctance to convene a grand jury to compel testimony from the witnesses he had lashed out against for refusing to cooperate.

After retiring, Browne was retained as a special prosecutor for the Moxley matter, and then he removed himself from the case in April 1998. One of the first things Benedict did upon inheriting the investigation was to make an application for a grand jury, which was granted by a three-judge panel. The grand jury convened in June 1998, and it heard testimony from 53 witness - including some Browne had accused of impeding the investigation - before issuing a Jan. 12 report concluding there was sufficient evidence to support an arrest.

After Skakel's arraignment earlier this month, the next step in the case is a probable cause hearing, which has been scheduled for June 20. It could take another year for the case to go before a jury, if ever.

"We've developed an awful lot of evidence in the grand jury, and I'm looking forward to trying it," Benedict said.