Skakel defense: Threat not relevant
By Kevin McCallum - Stamford Advocate
STAMFORD -- Even if Michael Skakel threatened a teacher's wife with a ski pole 24 years ago, it has nothing to do with whether he murdered Martha Moxley, Skakel's attorney said yesterday.
Other defense attorneys, however, said the account detailed in Sunday's Greenwich Time could influence legal strategies in the case if Skakel's character becomes an issue during the trial.
In response to a story detailing why Skakel was dismissed from a private school in Vermont in 1978, Skakel's attorney, Michael Sherman, questioned the story's accuracy and its relevance to the case.
"I don't believe it's relevant," Sherman said yesterday. "Even if it were true, it would bear no relation to this trial."
The story detailed how Skakel was ejected from the Vershire School in late February of 1978 after a teacher's wife reported that he threatened her with a ski pole during a confrontation on a dormitory staircase.
Richard Wright, the founder and headmaster of the private boarding school in Vershire, Vt., said he sent the then 17-year-old Skakel home after the incident and would not allow him to return until he received psychiatric care.
Skakel never returned to the school. Wright said he learned a few weeks later that Skakel had enrolled at the Elan School, a substance abuse treatment center in Poland Springs, Maine.
The prosecution's case relies heavily on testimony from former students of Elan, who, according to Skakel's arrest warrant, are expected to testify that he implicated himself in Moxley's slaying while attending the school from 1978 to 1980.
The woman who reported the incident to Vershire School officials, New Hampshire resident Jane Taupier, has declined to comment. She has not denied Wright's account of the incident.
Sherman said his client "categorically denied" the incident occurred, adding that Skakel left the school because he was failing.
Prosecutors Jonathan Benedict and Chris Morano both declined to comment on the issue.
Sherman, however, said Benedict assured him yesterday that the alleged incident is not currently part of the case.
"Jonathan Benedict said he's not using this as part of his case because he recognizes there is no relevance to it," Sherman said. "It makes a great Skakel story, but it has nothing to do with this crime."
Skakel, 41, is charged with bludgeoning his Belle Haven neighbor to death with a golf club while they were both 15. Jury selection is complete and opening statements are set for May 7 in Superior Court in Norwalk.
Because of the story's prominence, Sherman said he and Benedict will request that Superior Court Judge John Kavanewsky Jr. ask jurors prior to the start of trial whether they saw the article or other news accounts of the issue.
Kavanewsky instructed jurors not to read or watch news accounts of the case prior to the start of trial. Even so, Sherman said he was concerned the story could "poison" the jury.
Whether jurors will hear the details of the allegation during the trial remains unclear. Several local attorneys offered different opinions about whether it could affect the case. Some noted that the rules of evidence prevent the prosecution from introducing such evidence. Others said it could be introduced if Skakel's character becomes an issue.
New Canaan attorney and former prosecutor James Diamond said the judge will allow the prosecution to introduce evidence of other "wrongs" only under very limited circumstances.
Prosecutors would have to establish that the other wrongs, or "prior bad acts," helped prove the person's intent, identity, malice, motive, plan or "system of criminal activity," Diamond said. Prosecutors also must show that the testimony will not consume an inordinate amount of attention and will not cause confusion, he said.
"It has the potential to throw the trial into turmoil as you attempt to prove another nearly 30-year-old incident," Diamond said.
In addition, the judge has to determine whether the value of the information outweighs its "prejudicial effect" on the jury, Stamford attorney and former prosecutor Joseph Colarusso said.
"I think the prejudicial effect would be very, very strong, and I personally don't think that it should come in," Colarusso said.
If, however, the defense tries to call witnesses to testify about Skakel's good character, then the "door is open" for prosecutors to call witnesses to rebut the defense's claims, Greenwich attorney James Pastore said.
"If the defense is going to make a claim that Mr. Skakel was a quiet, calm, ordinary, Clark Kent kind of guy, then the prosecution can go into his character too," Pastore said.
Sherman has said two of his witnesses, Paul Hill and Courtney Kennedy, both of New York, would be called as character witnesses.
Greenwich attorney Philip Russell said he would not be surprised to see that change in the wake of the new information about the alleged threat.
Trials can be won or lost on the basis of character issues, Russell said.
"In a case where the evidence is thin or questionable, good character can be the tiebreaker," Russell said.
But if defense attorneys know the prosecution has character witnesses of its own, it might make them think twice about raising the issue.
"This would have the effect of forcing the defense to reconsider its character defense strategy in its entirety," said Russell, a former prosecutor.
Pastore said he expects the prosecution team to keep its options open.
"I think Benedict should at least talk to (the former Vershire staff)," Pastore said. "Given the pressure he's under in this case and the spotlight he's under, I think it would be in his best interest to investigate every possible piece of potential evidence."
-- Staff Writer Lindsay Faber contributed to this story.