By Denise Lavoie, Associated Press
STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) A nephew of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy has won one round in a legal battle to prevent a grand jury from hearing potentially incriminating statements he may have made about the unsolved 1975 killing of a Greenwich teen-ager.
The Connecticut Appellate Court ruled Thursday that a Bridgeport Superior Court judge erred when he rejected suspect Michael Skakel's claim that statements he made at a school and substance abuse treatment center were protected by psychiatrist-patient privilege.
The court reversed the trial court's decision and sent the case back to Superior Court for additional hearings.
Skakel's lawyers called it a clear victory in their attempts to stop prosecutors from forcing the owner of the Elan school in Poland Spring, Maine, from testifying before a grand jury investigating the murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley.
Prosecutors claim that Joseph Ricci, owner of the school, overheard or knew about potentially incriminating statements Skakel made while he attended the school in the years after Moxley's killing, from 1978 to 1980.
Skakel, who was 15 at the time of the killing, and his older brother Thomas, then 17, have been identified as suspects in the girl's death. Both are the sons of Rushton Skakel Sr., the brother of Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's widow.
Moxley lived across the street from the Skakels in the exclusive Belle Haven section of Greenwich.
She was beaten to death with a golf club on her family's estate the night of Oct. 30, 1975. The 6-iron was later matched to a set owned by the Skakel family. Both brothers have denied any involvement in her death.
In hearings last fall, Skakel's lawyers argued that any statements Skakel made at the Elan school were confidential and protected by psychiatrist-patient privilege because the facility specialized in the psychological treatment of teens with substance abuse problems.
Judge Edward Stodolink, however, ruled in December that Skakel was sent to Elan for an alcohol problem, not a psychological problem. He also ruled that because Elan was not a mental health facility protected by confidentiality, Ricci should be compelled to tell the grand jury what he knew about anything Skakel may have said at Elan.
In court papers, Bridgeport State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict said he had been told by several former residents of Elan that Ricci was present and overheard Skakel ''make admissions as to the murder of Martha Moxley.''
In its ruling, the Appellate Court said Stodolink erred when he ruled that Skakel had to prove Elan was a mental health facility and that the statements being probed by prosecutors related to the prognosis and treatment of a mental condition.
The appellate court said the definition of a ''mental condition'' under Connecticut law may include alcohol-related disorders. The court also said that many people who suffer from alcohol-related disorders often seek psychiatric treatment, and they enjoy psychiatrist-patient privilege.
The appellate court also said the trial court improperly failed to apply federal administrative regulations in effect at the time Skakel attended Elan, which afforded confidentiality to alcohol patients' records.
Lawyers for both Skakel and Ricci said the court's decision to send the issue back to the lower court effectively overturns the order compelling Ricci to testify. They said it also means the grand jury cannot consider testimony it has already heard from former patients at Elan.
''Right now, Ricci does not have to testify, and it appears they cannot use that testimony from others at Elan,'' said Michael Sherman, one of Skakel's attorneys.
Bridgeport State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict could not be reached for comment. A woman answering the telephone in his office said he was on vacation until next week.
Ricci called the ruling ''a great victory for clinicians and for people who are courageous enough to go into therapy.''
''If they had prevailed on this, no one would have been able to go to a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a therapist and revealed their anxieties without fear that this would come back to haunt them at a later date,'' Ricci said.
Ricci has denied knowing about any alleged admissions made by Skakel.