Site for Skakel trial stirs debate
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

As Michael Skakel awaits a hearing to decide whether the murder charge against him will proceed toward trial, it remains unclear where that trial will be held.

The prosecutor in the Martha Moxley murder case believes the trial should be held in Bridgeport, because at the time of the 1975 homicide, that is where all serious felonies committed in Fairfield County were prosecuted.

"All I can really say is that we appear to be applying both the procedural and substantive law of 1975, and if that is how we are to continue, then the trial would come within the venue of that time," Benedict said. "That being the case, I would expect to try it in Bridgeport."

But Skakel's defense lawyer, Michael Sherman, said, "It doesn't make sense" to not try the case in Stamford, where all crimes committed in Greenwich, regardless of their severity, have been tried for almost two decades.

"There seems to be no reason to believe it would be tried anywhere other than Stamford," Sherman said. "The crime occurred in Greenwich, and that's the original jurisdiction."

Because of the uncertainty that exists over what the proper venue should be, Benedict said, "This is an issue I expect will have to be litigated."

The cause for confusion is rooted in history:

Serious crimes are categorized in classes of felonies: A, B, C and D. The least serious of those felonies, Class D, include such offenses as second-degree assault and third-degree burglary. The most serious crimes, Class A felonies, include rape and murder. While Superior Court in Bridgeport once had sole jurisdiction over all A, B and C felonies that were committed throughout Fairfield County, Class D felonies - along with misdemeanors and traffic violations - have always been prosecuted either in the communities where they occurred or close by.

First there were the municipal courts in each town, and in the early 1960s they were supplanted by Circuit Courts that handled cases for towns on a regional basis. The Circuit Court responsible for Greenwich criminal cases was in Stamford, as was the Court of Common Pleas, which briefly replaced the Circuit Court in the late 1970s before it was folded into the state Superior Court system in 1981.

That was the same year the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District was formed, and it was responsible for prosecuting all crimes, regardless of their severity, that occurred in Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, Darien, New Canaan, Westport, Weston and Wilton.

State's Attorney Eugene Callahan was appointed to head the new judicial district and he has been at the helm ever since.

"When we became a judicial district, we started with no caseload - a clean slate," Callahan said on Friday. The existing class A, B, and C felony cases that were still pending the date the new district was formed - Oct. 1, 1981 - remained with prosecutors in Bridgeport, who saw them through to final disposition, he said.

That is why Callahan believes that if Skakel's case does go to trial, the same logic would apply and steer the case to Bridgeport.

"That would be my understanding," the Stamford prosecutor said.

A Bridgeport trial for Skakel would mean that that jurors would be selected the same way as they would have been in 1974, according to attorneys on both sides of the case. Instead of drawing upon potential jurors residing within the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District, all of Fairfield County would then become the jury pool.

Sherman said he was confident that a fair and impartial jury for his client's case can be found regardless of from where they are selected.

"I think every community wants to see that justice is done, whether they are people from Greenwich, Bridgeport or East Haddam," the defense attorney said. "People want this case resolved and people want to see justice, and our definition of justice in this case is an acquittal or exoneration of Michael Skakel."

Dorthy Moxley, the victim's mother, said she doesn't care where the trial is held or where jurors came from.

"Wherever and however they want to do it is fine with me, just so long as justice is finally done," she said.

Skakel's case is scheduled for a June 20 probable cause hearing, to be presided over by Judge Maureen Dennis of the Superior Court's Juvenile Matters division. The prosecution will have to present evidence to support its allegation that Skakel used a golf club to fatally bludgeon his then-neighbor in Belle Haven on Oct. 30, 1975.

Skakel was arraigned as a juvenile because he, like the victim, was 15 years old when the crime was committed. The juvenile case has been handled in Stamford because in 1975 the Stamford-based Circuit Court had jurisdiction over juvenile matters originating in Greenwich.

According to Benedict, Dennis' decision on whether to transfer Skakel's case to adult court could come during the probable cause hearing or at its conclusion, at which time the question of whether that court should be in Bridgeport or Stamford would become an issue.