Success on both sides in 1st week of Skakel trial
By Kevin McCallum - Stamford Advocate
NORWALK -- Prosecutors in the murder trial of Michael Skakel achieved significant successes the first week, though the defense team was not without victories, local legal experts said.
"The prosecution got off to a good start, as you would expect them to," said James Diamond, a New Canaan criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor. "It seems as if some of the wind has been take out of the defense's sails."
The trial to determine whether Skakel, 41, bludgeoned Martha Moxley to death with a golf club in 1975 resumes at 10 a.m. today in state Superior Court in Norwalk.
The jury heard evidence for three days last week, but trial watchers say the prosecution packed in testimony that establishes key elements of the crime and counters the defense team's strategy.
"I think the state's presentation and the order of witnesses shows that they had a pretty good advance idea of what the defense strategies were going to be and they headed off many of them in the early stages of the case," said Phil Russell, a Greenwich criminal defense attorney.
Russell, a former prosecutor, said the most damaging testimony to Skakel came from Andrea Shakespeare Renna, who told the jury that Skakel did not go to his cousin's home in backcountry Greenwich at about 9:30 p.m. the night Moxley was killed, as he told police, but remained in the Belle Haven section of Greenwich, where the Skakels and Moxleys were neighbors.
"His alibi has been defused," Russell said.
Skakel's attorney, Michael Sherman of Stamford, has been trying to establish that the murder occurred between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m., when he claims his client wasn't in the neighborhood.
Moxley's friend, Helen Ix Fitzpatrick, testified that her dog, Zock, was barking unusually long and loud in the direction of the Moxley house at about 10 p.m.
"He was really agitated," she said. "He was barking like I'll never forget it."
Sherman also presented evidence that suggested Moxley's curfew was about 9:30 p.m.
But prosecutors seem content to allow Sherman to argue the murder likely occurred early in the evening, spending their energy on casting doubt on Skakel's alibi.
For example, when Ix Fitzpatrick testified that she thought Skakel got in the car that went to his cousin's house, Senior Assistant State's Attorney Susann Gill forced her to concede that she would have no way of knowing whether Skakel got out of the car before it left the neighborhood.
Though weakened, Skakel's alibi does not appear to be completely undermined by the testimony, said Joe Colarusso, a Stamford criminal defense attorney.
Sherman was able to raise inconsistencies in Renna's testimony that he can use to convince the jury that Renna, a friend of Julie Skakel, was mistaken, Colarusso said.
"If you make a few dents in her testimony, that's enough," he said. "There's no reason to have to absolutely obliterate her on the stand. Those points are well-made and can be used in (Sherman's) summation."
More important for the defense, Russell said, was Tuesday's revelation that Greenwich police sought an arrest warrant for Thomas Skakel in 1976.
Former Greenwich Police Chief Thomas Keegan confirmed on cross-examination that he wrote and signed an affidavit for an arrest warrant explaining why he thought there was probable cause to arrest Thomas Skakel in the murder.
Sherman requested the affidavit from the prosecution during the discovery phase of the trial, but it was never turned over to him, he said. Questioned by Judge John Kavanewsky Jr., State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict said the document has been lost.
"The defense has been denied a sworn statement by a police official accusing a different person of the exact crime for which Michael Skakel stands accused," Russell said.
That the prosecution never turned over the document could become an issue on appeal, Russell said. It's also unlikely to sit well with the jury, he said.
"A jury, if they are listening, is going to be left with a big question of whether . . . they should be concerned that only the golf handle and the affidavit appear to be missing," Russell said.
The 12-inch handle of the golf club that was used to kill Moxley has never been found.
Diamond said the arrest affidavit for Thomas Skakel is not so damaging. The prosecution has made no secret of the fact that police have investigated other suspects, Diamond said -- and Benedict made it clear the prosecutor at the time rejected the request for lack of probable cause.
"It's got its limits because no one found it to be credible," Diamond said.
Some of the fiercest courtroom battles of the week occurred after the jury went home for a long weekend.
Friday's hearing about the admissibility of tapes of former Skakel family live-in tutor Kenneth Littleton cuts to the heart of the defense's case, Russell said.
To establish doubt, Sherman wants to present evidence that Littleton could have committed the crime.
The rules about introducing such evidence are complicated, however, and the defense has to prove to the judge that it is not simply "on a fishing expedition" for other suspects or trying to confuse the jury, Diamond said.
Sherman wants to introduce tapes that he says indicate Littleton confessed to Moxley's murder to his ex-wife. But in Friday's hearing, his ex-wife, Mary Baker, said Littleton never confessed to her. She said investigators urged her to convince him that he had confessed in the hope of catching Littleton on tape admitting to the crime.
Investigators offered conflicting testimony about whether they told Baker to lie to Littleton, so Kavanewsky has a difficult decision, Russell said.
"The problem that the judge faces now is that since the police testimony is inconsistent, the court would have to make a finding of fact for the jury," Russell said.
Because the issue is so central to Sherman's case, Russell said he believes the question should be left to the jury.
Kavanewsky postponed a ruling on the matter until today.