Witnesses say Skakel confessed
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time
STAMFORD - Michael Skakel left a courtroom in tears yesterday after listening to a witness testify he had heard Skakel confess to the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley.
Skakel's lawyer said the tears were brought on not by guilt, but because the witness lied about having heard Skakel admit to brutally murdering the 15-year-old Greenwich girl.
John Higgins, who was attending a substance abuse rehabilitation center with the defendant during the time he said Skakel confessed, was one of five prosecution witnesses to testify during the first day of a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is "reasonable cause" to believe Skakel committed murder and should stand trial. Higgins and another witness testified Skakel linked himself to the crime in conversations with them.
Now 37, Higgins said he met Skakel in 1978 at Elan School in Poland Spring, Maine. He testified the alleged confession was made while he and Skakel shared "night owl" duties, standing guard on a dormitory porch to prevent escape attempts. Talk eventually turned to the reason that brought Skakel to Elan School, Higgins said.
"He related to me that he had been involved in a murder of someone," Higgins said. "(Skakel) related that he was in his garage and was going through some golf clubs. Then he ran through some woods, and he remembers seeing pine trees. Then he blacked out."
Because Skakel said he had blacked out, Higgins said, "(Skakel) said that he didn't know whether he did it and he couldn't remember. He eventually said that he in fact did it."
Skakel, 39, is accused of bludgeoning Moxley to death with a golf club from a set owned by his family, and then using the club's broken shaft to stab the victim as she lay dying. Moxley had last been seen alive outside the Skakel home the evening of Oct. 30, 1975. Her body was found beneath a pine tree on her own property across the street from the Skakels'.
Skakel was a resident of Elan School from 1978 to 1980 for treatment of alcohol abuse.
During cross-examination, Skakel attorney Michael Sherman attempted to discredit Higgins by getting the witness to admit that in 1996 he had lied when he told a state inspector he never heard the alleged confession. Higgins explained the lie by stating, "I didn't want to be involved" in the homicide probe.
Higgins also fended off Sherman's suggestions that he only came forward to collect reward money.
"You're not in this for the money?" Sherman asked.
"No," Higgins responded, adding that he never tried to claim the $100,000 that had been posted for information leading to the conviction of Moxley's killer, and that he would be willing to sign a waiver disowning all such claims.
It is unknown whether Higgins' testimony will influence Superior Court Judge Maureen Dennis' finding on whether sufficient evidence exists for Skakel to stand trial. But it was clear the witness' words had a powerful effect on the defendant.
When Higgin's testimony was put on hold for the lunchtime recess, Skakel left the courtroom with tears streaming down his face, having to be consoled in the corridor by his four brothers who attended the hearing with their sister.
"It was an emotional response caused by this guy getting on the witness stand and lying," Sherman said.
But the victim's brother, John Moxley, said, "Those weren't tears of joy. He knows what's coming, and the reality is starting to tumble down around him."
John Moxley sat with his mother, Dorthy, his wife and an aunt on the side of the courtroom behind the prosecution table. The Skakel family took up an entire row of seats on the opposite side of the courtroom.
The only Skakel sibling not in attendance was Thomas Skakel, who for many years had been the prime Moxley murder suspect.
Higgins' testimony was followed by that of another former Elan School resident, Gregory Coleman, who told the packed courtroom Skakel had bragged to him he would be able to "get away" with murder because of his relationship with a prominent family. Skakel's father, Rushton Skakel Sr., is the brother of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, widow of the assassinated U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy.
The Kennedy connection arose in conversation one night in 1978, after Skakel had run away from Elan School and was returned, Coleman said, testifying that as part of his punishment Skakel was made to sleep on a stage in a dormitory dining hall with Coleman standing guard.
"The first night I was assigned to watch Mr. Skakel, it was obvious he was given special privileges," including being allowed to have his stereo and records with him, Coleman said. "I made the comment that this guy could get away with murder, and at this point he said, 'I'm going to get away with murder - I'm a Kennedy.' "
Coleman testified that Skakel had described for him events both prior to and after the murder.
"He was trying to make advances toward this girl, and this girl was not complying with these advances and, thus, he drove her skull in," Coleman said. "Two days later he'd gone back to the body. He had masturbated on the body."
Sherman interjected at this point, asking Coleman, "Was that days later?"
"That's what I recall," Coleman replied.
By the time the hearing adjourned for the day, Sherman hadn't had the opportunity to finish cross-examining Coleman. In comments to reporters, however, the defense lawyer appeared to indicate he planned to question Coleman more closely about the time reference in Skakel's alleged confession. Moxley's body was found the afternoon of Oct. 31, 1975, and had been removed from the scene that evening.
"You don't have to be a genius to figure out what's wrong with (Coleman's) story," Sherman said.
It also is possible Sherman will attempt to damage Coleman's credibility by attacking his character when the 38-year-old Rochester, N.Y., man returns to the witness stand today. Coleman, who is currently serving a one-year prison sentence in Rochester for a domestic violence-related conviction, admitted yesterday to a prior felony robbery conviction.
Also testifying yesterday was Sheila McGuire, the neighbor who found Moxley's body, and two retired Greenwich police officers, former Police Chief Thomas Keegan and James Lunney, one of the lead detectives on the case.
Keegan testified that the murder weapon was a 6-iron from a set of clubs owned by the Skakel family. He said the golf club broke into four pieces during the fatal attack, and the only portion not recovered was the grip that was labeled with the Skakel name.
"My conclusion is the person who killed Martha Moxley was aware that name was on the club and deliberately removed that portion of the club" from the crime scene, Keegan said.
The preliminary hearing is expected to last several more days. If the judge finds reasonable cause does exist that Skakel murdered Moxley, she must then decide whether Skakel's case should remain in juvenile court or be transferred to adult court.
Skakel was arraigned as a juvenile because he was 15 at the time of the murder.