Skakel case hinges on hearing
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

A Superior Court judge has reserved a Stamford courtroom for five days for what promises to be a mini-trial to determine the course of the state's case against the accused killer of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley.

Probable cause hearings are a statutory requirement for defendants charged with crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment, with the judge deciding whether the state's case is strong enough to proceed to trial. Hearings normally take a day, sometimes two, to complete.

But both the prosecutor and defense lawyer in the Moxley case said they are gearing up for a battle expected to last at least several days, beginning June 20. They agreed that if the hearing does not result in an order for 39-year-old defendant Michael Skakel to stand trial for the 1975 homicide, Skakel will likely avoid future prosecution for the crime.

"I think both sides are treating this hearing as a trial," Skakel's attorney, Michael Sherman, said on Thursday.

State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict said he plans to present evidence and witness testimony that he is confident will push the case against Skakel over the threshold requirement for trial, that will prove there is "reasonable cause" to believe Skakel murdered 15-year-old Moxley on Oct. 30, 1975.

Because the hearing will be held in juvenile court - Skakel was charged as a juvenile because he was 15 at the time of Moxley's murder - the proceeding is actually known as a "reasonable cause" hearing, the juvenile court term that means the same thing as "probable cause" in adult court.

"Certainly, we have sufficient evidence to demonstrate reasonable cause to the judge," Benedict said, adding he plans to reveal only a portion of the case against Skakel.

Sherman, however, said he believes Benedict would be unlikely to prevail even if he were to present the entire case against his client.

"I think the state's case borders between weak and nonexistent," Sherman said.

If Judge Maureen Dennis finds reasonable cause to believe Skakel murdered Moxley, she will have to determine whether the appropriate trial venue is juvenile or adult court.

But should she find reasonable cause does not exist, Benedict conceded, the state may lose any opportunity to prosecute Skakel.

"A finding of no reasonable cause, practically speaking, usually results in the presiding judge deciding that the case should be retained in juvenile court, which would suggest that the case would go no further and may very well terminate the case," Benedict said.

Although the prosecutor would not discuss the evidence he plans to present at the hearing, Benedict is expected to call upon one or more people who allegedly heard Skakel make incriminating statements concerning Moxley's death at a substance abuse treatment facility. Skakel was a resident of the Elan School rehab center in Maine from 1978 to 1980 because of an alcohol addiction.

Sherman will be allowed to cross-examine the state's witnesses, but juvenile court rules do not provide for defense witnesses in reasonable cause hearings.

Among the known physical evidence the prosecution has at its disposal are parts of the murder weapon - portions of a 6-iron that police said came from a set of golf clubs owned by the Skakel family, who in 1975 lived across the street from the Moxleys in the town's Belle Haven section. Skakel was among a group of neighborhood teens that included Moxley the night of the murder. He originally told police he left Moxley to drive a cousin home, and later returned home and went to bed. In a private investigation agency's report, commissioned in 1992 by the Skakel family and later leaked to the media, Skakel is said to have significantly changed his alibi by placing himself at or near the crime scene, and admitted lying to police.

It is unknown whether this report by Sutton Associates will be used as evidence in the probable cause hearing.