Skakel judge refuses to move trial
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time
The man charged with murdering Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley will be tried close to the victim's hometown rather than in Bridgeport, where prosecutors wanted to try the case, a Superior Court judge ruled yesterday.
In his 10-page decision denying a venue change request, Judge John Kavanewsky Jr. said the state failed to meet any of the standards required for venue changes, including proving that Michael Skakel would not receive a fair trial in Stamford, where crimes committed in Greenwich usually are prosecuted.
Skakel, 40, is charged with bludgeoning and stabbing to death his 15-year-old Greenwich neighbor on Oct. 30, 1975.
State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict said he anticipated the judge ruling against his motion.
"It was not unexpected, and it's not particularly momentous," Benedict said. "We're prepared to try the matter anytime, any place."
Skakel's defense attorney, Michael Sherman, said the ruling was a small victory in a case that has been marked by a series of defeats for his client.
"It's one in a row," Sherman said. "We basically won a skirmish here. It's not a major victory in this case, since I believe we can get a fair trial anywhere."
Moxley's family said Kavanewsky's ruling was inconsequential.
"It didn't make any difference to me where this will be, just as long as we do it - that's what's important," said the victim's mother, Dorthy Moxley.
"The venue won't have any impact on the trial," brother John Moxley said. "Hopefully, we will get to a trial and that will speak for itself, but the venue in and of itself is not a big factor, at least in my mom's mind or my mind."
Although Bridgeport has been ruled out as the trial site, Kavanewsky left open the possibility the matter could be heard in Norwalk, which is about halfway between Greenwich and Bridgeport. The judge did not specifically set Stamford as the trial location, but assigned responsibility to the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District.
State's Attorney Eugene Callahan, chief prosecutor at the Stamford courthouse, said he believed Norwalk would be the logical site.
"I would certainly like to see it there, because we have an overcrowded situation here already," Callahan said.
Prosecuting and defense attorneys have denied their position on the venue issue was pre-trial posturing with an eye toward a more favorable jury pool. But some court observers indicated jurors selected from an urban area such as Bridgeport might be less sympathetic to Skakel, whose family was among Greenwich's wealthiest.
Even though Benedict had based his motion on the fact that all serious crimes at the time of Moxley's murder were tried in Bridgeport - the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District had not been created in 1975 - he admitted yesterday that he sought to try the case in Bridgeport as a matter of convenience.
"It would have made it easier for us to present" the case, said Benedict, whose office is in the same building as Bridgeport criminal courts.
While the actual site of the trial apparently is still undecided, a state Judicial Branch media advisory made it clear yesterday that the next stage of Skakel's case will be handled in Stamford. The advisory designated the Hoyt Street courthouse as the site for a probable cause hearing on April 18.
In the probable cause hearing, the prosecution will need to persuade a judge it has sufficient evidence for Skakel's case to go before a jury.
A similar hearing last summer in Juvenile Court - where Skakel was initially arraigned because he was 15 when Moxley was murdered - determined there was enough evidence to warrant a trial. That evidence included testimony from former residents of a substance abuse rehabilitation facility, who said they had heard incriminating statements from Skakel, who was at the center for alcohol abuse.
Also pending is Skakel's appeal of the juvenile court judge's decision to transfer his case to adult court. The state has countered with a motion to dismiss the appeal.
In addition, Skakel filed a motion to dismiss the murder charge, claiming a five-year statute of limitations for the prosecution of felonies - even murder - was in effect in 1975. The law was revised in 1976 and now imposes no time constraints for prosecuting alleged murderers.
In the motion, Skakel argues he should not be penalized because the state took so long to make an arrest. He was charged in January 2000 on the basis of the findings of a grand jury that began probing the Moxley murder in 1998.