Jury selection for Skakel trial complicated
By Kevin McCallum - Greenwich Time

Once the prosecution and defense teams square off Tuesday in the opening day of the Michael Skakel murder trial, they aren't likely to agree on much.

But nearly 27 years after Martha Moxley's savage killing and two years after Skakel's arrest for the crime, both sides say they are relieved to finally be entering a courtroom.

"We're ready to go," said Frank Garr, one of the original detectives on the case and now an investigator with the State's Attorney's Office. "It's been a long journey, and it's good to be finally under way and seeing that light at the end of the tunnel."

Jury selection begins Tuesday at the state Superior Court building in Norwalk.

The prosecution isn't scheduled to begin presenting its case until early May, but it is clear the participants are eyeing Tuesday as a significant milestone in what has been one of the most sensational cases in state history.

"This trial starts at 10 a.m. Tuesday, absolutely," said Michael Sherman, Skakel's Stamford attorney.

Skakel also is eager for the trial to begin, Sherman said, because every day in court will bring closer the day that the world will see he did not beat his 15-year-old neighbor to death with a golf club on the night of Oct. 30, 1975.

"He's doing great," Sherman said of his 41-year-old client. "He believes that he will be exonerated, and the nightmare is going to be over."

If State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict gets his way, however, Skakel's nightmare is only beginning. If convicted, Skakel faces 60 years in prison.

Benedict helped revive the foundering murder case by requesting a one-man investigative grand jury in 1998.

For 18 months, Benedict presented state Superior Court Judge George Thim in Bridgeport with testimony from more than 40 witnesses.

They included friends who were with the popular teen shortly before her attacker bludgeoned her with a golf club, then stabbed her through the neck with the shattered shaft. Her body was found the next day under a tree a few yards from her home.

Also testifying were former students at a drug and alcohol treatment school in Maine, several of whom claimed they heard Skakel confess to the crime while they were students there in the late 1970s.

In addition to witnesses, Benedict also presented evidence that the murder weapon was a six-iron from a set of golf clubs that belonged to the Skakel family.

Based on this and other evidence, Thim ruled in January 2000 that there was probable cause to believe Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, committed the murder.

On Jan. 19, 2000, Skakel flew to Connecticut from Hobe Sound, Fla., where he was living with his father, turned himself in to the Greenwich Police Department, posted a $500,000 bond, and surrendered his passport.

A judge later ruled that though Skakel was 15 at the time of the crime, he would be tried as an adult in state Superior Court.

Greenwich Police Chief Peter Robbins said Skakel's trial should provide residents with answers to a mystery that has hung like a pall over the town and his department.

"I think the community's been looking for some closure to this for (more than) 20 years, and so has the police department," Robbins said.

Robbins knows, however, that to bring closure, the trial will open some old wounds for his department.

Critics for years have charged that police bungled the initial investigation, allowing the Skakel family's wealth and prestige to intimidate inexperienced detectives.

Skakel's father, Rushton, is heir to Great Lakes Carbon Corp., formerly one of the largest privately held companies in the world. Rushton's sister, Ethel, is the widow of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

"I think it's understood, from what I've read or heard, that there's going to be an attempt to criticize the initial investigation done by the detectives and supervisors at the scene," Robbins said.

Robbins, who supervised the investigation at one point, defended his department's handling of the case.

"When you have no witnesses, your trace evidence is limited and there's no confession, those are difficult cases, whether it's in Greenwich or anywhere else in the United States," Robbins said.

Those difficulties caused investigators to bounce from suspect to suspect over the years. Initially, these included Moxley's next-door neighbor and the Skakel's chauffeur.

Suspicion also originally focused on Kenneth Littleton, a 23-year-old Brunswick School teacher hired by Rushton Skakel to keep tabs on his seven children while he was away on business, which was often.

Attention later turned to Tommy Skakel, who was 17 at the time of the murder and was the last person known to have seen Moxley alive. Police have said they suspected Tommy Skakel's involvement in part because he claimed to have left Moxley at 9:30 p.m. to write a paper about Abraham Lincoln. Police could not find any teacher who had assigned him the paper. The Skakel family stopped cooperating with investigators in 1976.

After years of stagnation, the case was reopened in 1991 after The Advocate and Greenwich Time published an article by reporters Leonard Levitt and Kevin Donovan documenting the investigation to that point.

Much of the reinvestigation centered on Kenneth Littleton, whose erratic behavior in the years after the murder caused inspectors to suspect he knew more than he was telling about Moxley's murder.

In the hopes that the reinvestigation would prove Littleton responsible and exonerate his sons, Rushton Skakel made a decision that would be prove costly.

He hired a private investigation firm, Sutton Associates, to clear his sons. But instead of clearing them, the firm's report ended up doing the opposite.

In the report, which was leaked to Newsday reporter Levitt, the private investigators said Tommy and Michael Skakel had changed their stories when reinterviewed.

After being led to believe DNA evidence could link them to the scene, Tommy Skakel now said he had a sexual encounter with Moxley before she went home. His brother's story changed as well. Michael Skakel claimed that after returning home from a cousin's house in northern Greenwich, he climbed a tree outside Moxley's bedroom window, masturbated in the boughs, and then walked past the crime scene, throwing rocks at noises he heard coming from the area.

Michael Skakel's statement intrigued investigators, and he has been the prime suspect ever since.

After a segment aired on the national program "Unsolved Mysteries," inspectors' new theory of Skakel's involvement was buttressed by calls from former students at the Elan School, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program in Poland Springs, Maine, which Skakel attended from 1978 to 1980.

According to Skakel's arrest warrant, several former students reported that Skakel had placed himself at the scene of Moxley's murder, confessed to it or something in between.

The importance that prosecutors have placed on these statements is evidenced by the fact that more than half of the 13-page arrest warrant is comprised of their memories of conversations with Skakel. For this reason, trial watchers say they expect Sherman will attack the credibility of their recollections.

"It is clear that the defense is going to argue that witnesses' recollections change and develop over time," said Joseph Tacopina, a Westport resident who practices criminal defense in New York. "And certainly many of the witnesses in this case, unfortunately for the prosecution, were people who have had substantial mental health issues, whether drug-related or otherwise."

Tacopina, a former federal prosecutor and friend of Sherman's, said the public received a "sneak preview" of the credibility problems facing the prosecution's witnesses during Skakel's preliminary hearing in April 2000.

During that hearing, which was to determine whether Skakel should stand trial, Gregory Coleman, in an attempt to explain inconsistencies in his testimony, admitted on cross examination that he had been high on heroin during his grand jury testimony months earlier. Coleman died last year of a heroin overdose.

Tacopina predicted jurors will be loath to decide a man's fate based on "witnesses you wouldn't let walk your dog, let alone believe beyond a reasonable doubt."

Also weighing heavily on the jurors' minds, however, will be Martha Moxley's mother, Dorthy Moxley, who this week praised the work of Garr and Benedict in bringing the case to a resolution.

Moxley, who has previously said she is convinced Skakel is responsible for her daughter's murder, said she is declining to be interviewed until the end of the trial. She noted, however, that she's not going to miss a moment of it.

"I'm going to be there every day, unless I'm on my death bed, heaven forbid," she said.

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