Skakel hearing comes to close
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

STAMFORD - Witness accounts of confessions and other evidence show Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley was murdered in 1975 by Michael Skakel, who remains a threat to society and therefore should be tried as an adult for the crime he committed when he was 15, a prosecutor said yesterday at the conclusion of a three-day hearing.

But the case against Skakel is severely flawed, the defendant's attorney countered, calling prosecution witnesses liars and saying any admissions Skakel may have made were coerced as the result of beatings and other forms of sometimes brutal therapy at a controversial substance abuse rehabilitation center.

Superior Court Judge Maureen Dennis must now weigh both sides in the 25-year-old murder case to decide whether "reasonable cause" exists for Skakel to stand trial and, if so, whether the trial will be in juvenile or adult court.

"I will take however amount of time I need" to issue a written decision, Dennis said, adding she will review hearing transcripts and the law as part of her deliberations.

The end of the sometimes dramatic hearing came with two members of the Kennedy family in attendance, the same prominent family that prosecution witnesses testified Skakel once referred to when bragging he could "get away with murder."

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Douglas Kennedy, Skakel's cousins and sons of assassinated U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, said their mother, Ethel, had also planned to attend, but was prevented by an undisclosed "last-minute emergency."

"This (murder) is a horrible, unspeakable tragedy, and it only compounds it to blame Michael Skakel, who is innocent," Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told reporters outside the courtroom.

Neither Kennedy returned to the courtroom after the lunchtime recess.

The victim's mother, Dorthy Moxley, who attended each day of the hearing, said she heard nothing from the defense witnesses that changed her belief Skakel murdered her daughter.

"I just get madder and madder and madder," Moxley said after the hearing. "I don't think I've ever been a vindictive person, but I think I'm getting that way."

During two days of testimony last week, Dennis heard from two men who said Skakel in 1978 separately told them he murdered Moxley while attending the Elan School rehab center in Maine. The judge also heard evidence from Skakel's childhood best friend, Andrew Pugh, who testified that years after the murder Skakel confided to being at the crime scene the night Moxley was slain with a golf club owned by the Skakel family.

Pugh testified that after a chance encounter at a 1991 Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Greenwich, Skakel told him he had climbed the tree under which Moxley's body was found, and that he masturbated in the tree. One of the prosecution's former Elan School residents, Gregory Coleman, testified Skakel confided he "drove in (Moxley's) skull" with a golf club and later returned to the body to masturbate over it. Coleman also testified Skakel bragged he would get away with the crime because "he was related to the Kennedy family."

In rebuttal yesterday, defense attorney Michael Sherman called four witnesses, three of them women who also had attended Elan School with Skakel. Skakel was admitted to the rehab center for treatment of alcohol abuse after a drunken-driving accident in upstate New York.

Alice Dunn, 40, of Portland, Maine, testified about how during a "general meeting" before Elan School's 200 residents, as punishment for having run away from the rehab center, "They were trying to get him to talk about what happened to Martha Moxley."

Although Skakel was continually asked by Elan School residents about whether he murdered the 15-year-old girl, including while being pummeled by fellow residents in a boxing ring, Dunn said, "He denied vehemently, over and over again: 'No, no, no, no.' "

Dunn testified she and Skakel became good friends at Elan School, and that she once asked him point-blank about the Greenwich murder.

"I wanted to know whether it was true or not," she said. "He told me he didn't do it."

But under cross-examination, Dunn was reminded by State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict that two years ago she testified before a grand jury that she and Skakel once left the rehab center to go drinking at a restaurant where Skakel confided that "as far as he was concerned he could have done it."

The grand jury's 18-month probe into the murder resulted in Skakel's arrest on Jan. 19.

Another former Elan School resident, 38-year-old Sarah Petersen of Key West, Fla., said she voluntarily came forward in Skakel's defense after hearing other former residents falsely accusing Skakel of confessing to murder.

"I couldn't stand by and allow that to affect a man's life," Petersen testified.

Defense witness Angela McFillin, 37, of Baltimore, similarly said, "Since I was there (at Elan School), I thought the truth should come out since Michael Skakel's life is on the line."

Last week, prosecution witness John Higgins testified that during a late-night discussion outside their Elan School dormitory, Skakel first told him he could not remember if he killed Moxley because he had been in an alcoholic blackout, but "eventually said he in fact did it."

In their testimony yesterday, McFillin and Petersen said Higgins was a known liar at Elan School. Using the same term, both witnesses said Higgins sought to earn "Brownie points" with staff members by telling lies or exaggerations about fellow residents.

Sherman tried to discredit Higgins testimony last week by getting him to admit that in 1996 he 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.

In closing yesterday, Sherman reminded Dennis about Higgins' admission as he told the judge her decision on whether to send Skakel's case to trial "should be based on credible evidence and not on people who came here and lied to us."

Higgins also testified he heard Skakel confess a second time, during a "primal scream" group therapy session at the rehab center.

In rebuttal yesterday, Dunn said she could recall being in one primal scream session with Skakel, during which he agonized over the death of his mother but never mentioned a murder. Under cross-examination, Dunn said she was not in attendance at many other group therapy sessions Skakel was involved in during his stay at Elan School, from 1978 to 1980.

Referring in his final argument to the rehab center's controversial goal of breaking residents' egos in order to rehabilitate them, Sherman said Skakel's alleged admissions had more to do with putting a stop to tormenting confrontations than in admitting guilt.

"(Skakel) went from 'I didn't do it' to 'I don't know - leave me alone,' " Sherman said.

Petersen testified that Elan School Director Joseph Ricci had threatened Skakel by telling him, "You'll never leave here until you admit you killed that girl."

The final rebuttal witness was Bernadette Coomaraswamy, a former neighbor of Skakel's in Greenwich's exclusive Belle Haven section. An attorney who once specialized in juvenile criminal matters, and a former juvenile court prosecutor, Coomaraswamy testified Skakel had lived an exemplary life since leaving Elan School, even volunteering to talk to juvenile criminal defendants about the dangers of substance abuse.

Coomaraswamy, who was legal adviser to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, said she had introduced Skakel to the late missionary because she thought "it might ignite something in him to work with people" less fortunate than himself.

Coomaraswamy testified she did not believe Skakel was in need of "additional rehabilitation." To keep a case in juvenile court, a judge must find, among other things, the defendant is capable of being rehabilitated.

Benedict said in summation that "Any person committing such an offense as murder should be deemed a danger to society for that person's entire life."

The prosecutor said that that law as it existed in 1975 allowed for juveniles 14 years and older accused of murder to be tried as adults.

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