Some are skeptical of elder Skakel's foggy memory
By Eve Sullivan - Greenwich Time
NORWALK -- After yesterday's cloudy testimony from Rushton Skakel Sr., in which he said he didn't know what happened Sept. 11, some questioned the extent of his memory loss.
The 78-year-old is the father of Michael Skakel, who is on trial for the Oct. 30, 1975, murder of his neighbor, Martha Moxley. Rushton Skakel Sr.'s sister is Ethel Kennedy, widow of U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy.
Despite defense arguments and a letter from the elder Skakel's doctor saying he suffers from dementia, Judge John Kavanewsky Jr. allowed him to testify for the prosecution.
Skakel slowly walked into the courtroom and to the front table, where Michael Skakel sat with his lawyers. He shook his son's hand and kissed his cheek.
Dominick Dunne, who wrote a book loosely based on the case and is covering the trial for Vanity Fair, said after the elder Skakel's testimony that he didn't buy the act.
"I think the whole 9/11 thing was a setup. It was Michael's idea," Dunne said. "I think the kiss was a setup. I mean they have the right to do that, but it's bull . . . ."
Before the jury entered the courtroom, Prosecutor Susann Gill and defense attorney Michael Sherman of Stamford asked Skakel a series of questions to establish his competency. Skakel said he understood Michael was on trial.
When Sherman asked Skakel how many children he has and whether he could remember their names, Skakel seemed to have trouble.
"I wish you wouldn't ask me that," he said. He struggled to name six of his seven children.
Sherman then asked Skakel whether he has an accurate memory of things that happened "some 26 years ago." Skakel replied that he does not, because he's 78 and his memory is not as good as it was.
Kavanewsky ruled Skakel competent to testify and the jury was allowed into the courtroom.
Under Gill's questioning, Skakel said he lived in the Belle Haven section of Greenwich in 1975 and recalled his neighbor, Martha Moxley, being killed. Skakel said he never met Moxley, who was friends with his sons.
Skakel, who now lives in Hobe Sound, Fla., testified he wasn't home on the day of Moxley's death, but drove back from a hunting trip the next day. Gill asked who was in the house when he returned.
"The house was full, but I don't remember everyone who was there," he said.
Gill asked Skakel whether he remembered seeing James McKenzie, an associate counsel who worked at Great Lakes Carbon Co. -- a large, family owned company -- at the home, and he said no.
McKenzie testified earlier in the day that he was sent to the house to get things under control.
The prosecutor then asked Skakel whether he returned home early from his trip because Moxley was murdered.
"I didn't return early," Skakel said. "It was a hunting trip and the hunting was over."
Skakel said he recalled talking to his children when he got home but doesn't remember what they discussed.
In response to another question, Skakel said he didn't remember asking live-in tutor Kenneth Littleton to take the children to Windham, N.Y., for the weekend after the murder.
Skakel also didn't recall why Michael was sent to the Elan School in Maine, where he allegedly confessed to committing the murder to fellow students in 1978.
Gill asked Skakel whether he used to talk to his close friend, Mildred Ix, about problems with his children. He said he didn't remember.
To refresh his memory, Gill had Skakel read from Ix's grand jury testimony, in which she said that Rushton Sr. said Michael had so much to drink that night that he might not remember killing Martha.
After Skakel said he did not remember the conversation, the defense began its cross-examination.
"What happened in this country on Sept. 11 of last year?" Sherman asked.
"It was a very big incident, but I don't remember the details," Skakel said.
Sherman said he had no further questions and sat down.
On his way out the door, Rushton Skakel stopped and gave Michael, 41, a hug. The younger Skakel told his father he loved him.
"I think he's crazy like a fox," John Moxley, brother of the murder victim, said outside the courtroom. "Rush Skakel drives his own car and keeps his own checkbook. If he's incompetent, why would you let him drive?"
Asked later who came up with the Sept. 11 question, Sherman smiled and said, "No comment."
According to the note from Rushton Skakel's doctor, he is being treated for degenerative dementia with depression and behavioral changes.
His mental state includes defects in immediate and remote recall and memory, orientation as to season and date, and trouble recalling the names of three items after a three-minute interval.
"He is somewhat paranoid, frequently checking doors and windows, to make sure they are locked," the letter states. "He has several times given money to strangers, but is unable to explain why. His ability to think in abstract terms is impaired, often resorting to silly neologisms, sticking his tongue out or making grotesque faces at the other person. His behavior in my office during our sessions is often like a small child."