More than two decades after the killing,
a trial gets under way
By John Springer, Court TV
NORWALK, Conn. — A case that lay dormant for more than two decades took center stage Tuesday as the murder trial of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel began in a Connecticut courtroom.
Skakel, the 41-year-old nephew of Ethel Kennedy, faced a phalanx of cameras, microphones and network reporters, as he arrived at court to face charges in the 1975 beating of a teenaged girl in the affluent Greenwich, Conn., enclave of Belle Haven.
Skakel scanned the media mob briefly before passing through extra-tight security and finding his seat in Judge John Kavanewsky's packed courtroom. The seat will be his for about five weeks, the amount of time the prosecution and defense estimates it will take for anywhere from 30 to 50 witnesses to testify about what they know about the Oct. 30, 1975, killing of 15-year-old Martha Moxley.
Prosecutor Jonathan Benedict set the stage during his 10-minute opening statement Tuesday morning. Sounding very much like the opening chapter of two non-fiction books written about the much-publicized case, Benedict began by telling the jury that last night of Martha's life was a cold evening in October 1975, the night before Halloween — "Mischief Night," the locals called it.
"Mischief Night," Benedict said, getting to the point, "became one family's everlasting nightmare."
Benedict said that evidence will show that Michael Skakel beat Martha with a golf club from his deceased mother's set "so furiously" that the head of the six-iron broke off. There will also be evidence, Benedict told the jury of six men and six women empanelled for the trial last month, that Skakel and people close to him began trying to cover up the brutal crime almost immediately.
"It resulted in investigators following the wrong trail for many years .... though the real truth lay right under their noses all along," Benedict said, reading remarks he prepared in advance.
"What happened to Martha Moxley that night? Who killed her? That's what this trial and your deliberations are all about," the 55-year-old prosecutor said.
Benedict steered clear of revealing most of his evidence but did mention the expected testimony of witnesses who say Skakel admitted to the crime while attending the Elan School in Maine in the late 1970s. Whether out of guilt, anger or panic, statements made by Skakel are direct evidence, and when combined with other evidence, is more than sufficient to convict of killing Martha, Benedict told the jury.
Skakel's lawyer, Mickey Sherman, was uncharacteristically low key during his 10-minute opening to the panel. He began by asking jurors if they remember "Socks the cat." During jury selection, panel members said they could convict the mythical cat of knocking over a bowl of cereal if they did not witness the act but found other circumstantial evidence it occurred.
"The problem with the state's case is that there is no milk on the whiskers and Socks was not even in the neighborhood when the milk was taken," Sherman said.
The defense claims that the prosecution's own evidence shows that Martha was probably attacked about 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m. on Oct. 30, 1975. The defense claims that Michael Skakel was either enroute or already at his cousin's across town when numerous neighbors reported that dogs began barking incessantly.
Sherman asked jurors not to be overwhelmed by graphic images of Martha's battered body or by sympathy for the victim's mother, Dorthy Moxley, who sat in the first row with author and former O.J. Simpson detective Mark Fuhrman.
"You are going to see some very disturbing pictures," Shermam said, pointing to an elaborate multi-media setup the prosecution devised to project images from a laptop computer. "I'm asking you not to be blinded by the emotional rage you feel and we all feel. The Moxley family is here to seek justice, vengeance."
Sherman went on to characterize the prosecution's physical evidence as "zilch" and asked jurors to consider the credibility and reliability of witness who attended Elan with Skakel and who claim he admitted to committing the crime.
"The case that they have here is based loosely on a very shaky house of cards, mainly wild cards and a few jokers as well," Sherman said.
None of Skakel's Kennedy cousins were in the courtroom Tuesday but are expected to attend some of the testimony. The prosecution's first witness, Dorthy Moxley, testified for about 90 minutes Tuesday to describe her frantic overnight search for Martha and the discovery of the body on the Moxley property about 12:15 p.m. the following day.
Moxley said she remembers a knock at the door and one of her friend's answering it.
"It was a girl and she was hysterical and she said, 'I think I found Martha,'" Moxley testified. "I said, 'Is she alright?' and she said, 'No, I don't think so.'"