Old sentencing rules will benefit Skakel
Skakel won't serve entire sentence
By Kevin McCallum - Stamford Advocate
Convicted murderers in Connecticut receive no time off their sentences for good behavior and are not eligible for parole.
But Michael Skakel will get both.
Because tougher sentencing laws passed since Martha Moxley's 1975 murder will not apply to him, the 41-year-old may serve only about half the minimum prison sentence he receives next month.
Skakel faces a prison term of between 10 years to life and 25 years to life when sentenced Aug. 9 in state Superior Court in Norwalk.
A jury on June 7 convicted the nephew of Ethel Kennedy of beating his neighbor to death with a 6-iron in the private Belle Haven section of Greenwich when they were both 15.
The jury's decision followed a riveting five-week trial that attracted national media attention.
Even though Skakel was convicted of the crime in 2002, he must be sentenced according to the laws that were on the books in 1975, said State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict, who prosecuted the case.
The 27-year delay in Skakel's prosecution means he will benefit from at least two kinds of incentives that Connecticut lawmakers have since abolished.
The first and perhaps most significant of these is Skakel's eligibility for "good-time credits."
The day he begins his state prison term, Skakel will automatically be awarded enough credits to cut nearly in half the minimum number of years he must serve in prison, according to Brian Garnett, director of communications for the state Department of Correction.
If Skakel is sentenced to the minimum, 10 years to life, for example, he could be released in five years and nine months, or in April 2008 if he behaves well, Garnett said. If Superior Court Judge John Kavanewsky Jr. hands him the maximum sentence of 25 years to life, Skakel could be released in just longer than 13 years, or in November 2015.
Such sentence reductions were awarded at the beginning of an inmate's stay and would be revoked if the person violated certain rules, Garnett said.
"If you behaved yourself, you kept it, and if you didn't, it was chipped away at," he said.
In Skakel's case, the credits will be calculated by granting him 10 days off his sentence for good behavior per month for the first five years, and 15 days off per month for every year thereafter, Garnett said.
The state Legislature outlawed such credits in 1994 with the passage of the Truth in Sentencing Act, said state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, chairman of the state Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
The state, under pressure from the federal government, passed the act in an effort to make the prison terms inmates served reflect the sentences handed down by judges, said Lawlor, an assistant law professor at the University of New Haven.
"There were people who were only serving 10 percent of their sentences," Lawlor said.
While doing away with the credits resulted in longer prison sentences, such policy changes cannot be retroactive, Lawlor said.
Doing so would violate the basic constitutional principle that the government cannot pass laws ex post facto, or after the fact, Lawlor said.
In other words, the law of the land when the crime is committed, not when the person is convicted, is the law that must be followed in meting out the punishment, Lawlor said.
The second benefit Skakel will receive that convicted murders are no longer granted is eligibility for parole, said Brian Anderson, spokesman for the state Board of Parole.
The state did away with the parole system in 1981, but the result was overcrowding in prisons, Anderson said. So in 1990, the Legislature reinstituted parole, with certain restrictions.
"They said 'We're bringing back parole, but not for murderers,' " Anderson said.
But this restriction will not apply to Skakel for the same constitutional reasons, Lawlor said. "It is important to remember that all of these things happened between the time Michael Skakel committed this murder and the time he was arrested," Lawlor said.
Being eligible for parole and being paroled, however, are two different things.
"Just because someone is eligible for parole doesn't mean they're entitled to it," Lawlor said.
Lawlor, a former prosecutor, said he would be surprised if Skakel were paroled as soon as he became eligible because parole boards now are accustomed to longer sentences for violent crimes.
It is unclear how these benefits could affect the sentence handed down by the judge next month.
Skakel's attorney, Hope Seeley, said she is aware her client is eligible for the benefits but declined to discuss his sentencing further.
Benedict said he does not intend to raise at the sentencing the issue of how much time Skakel is likely to serve under 1975 laws.
"The court knows the law," he said. "We're going to argue the severity of the crime."
But Lawlor said Judge Kavanewsky will almost certainly take into consideration Skakel's benefits when sentencing him, and compensate accordingly.
"Back when people were serving 10 percent of their sentences, judges got used to that and you started seeing the sentences go up," Lawlor said.
John Moxley, Martha's brother, said he thinks Skakel should be sentenced to at least the amount of time the Moxley family was forced to wait for justice.
"We've spent 27 years waiting, and for Michael's entire life, he has been running away from this, avoiding this, denying this, and hiding from this," Moxley said.
But if the law allows Skakel to get out of prison early, Moxley said that's not something he's going to worry about.
"What can I do about it? Nothing," Moxley said. "I can't get upset about what I can't influence or control."
In addition to "good time credits," Skakel may qualifyfor two other forms of sentence reductions.
Inmates once could receive something called an "outstanding merit performance award." The award reduced an inmate's time served by 120 days based on some type of "outstanding achievement," Garnett said.
It is unclear what Skakel would have to do to receive such an award, but Lawlor said they were once commonplace. They were abolished along with the good time credits, Garnett said.
Skakel also will receive one day per week off his time served if he works a job seven days a week.
The only such jobs are working as a janitor, kitchen worker or "tier man," essentially acting as the leader of his prison section, Garnett said.
But whether Skakel will avail himself of these benefits remains to be seen.