Court sides with Skakel over Elan testimony
By J.A. Johnson Jr. Greenwich Time
The state Appellate Court has reversed a state Superior Court judge's order that a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center's owner must testify to what he knows about admissions a suspect allegedly made concerning the Martha Moxley murder.
Suspect Michael Skakel's defense lawyer said the decision was a significant victory for his client.
"The ball is now back in the state's court," Stamford attorney Michael Sherman said. "As it stands, (prosecutors) cannot use this evidence."
It remains unclear, however, whether the Appellate Court decision would affect testimony the grand jury has already heard from others who attended the rehab center with Skakel. The jury was convened in June 1998 in what is believed to be a last-ditch attempt to solve the 1975 slaying of Moxley.
"We don't know the answer to that yet," New Haven attorney David Grudberg, who argued on Skakel's behalf before the appeals court in May, said yesterday.
On Dec. 10, Superior Court Judge Edward Stodolink ruled that Joseph Ricci, owner of Elan School in Poland Spring, Maine, must testify before the grand jury about any statements Skakel may have made to him concerning any knowledge Skakel had relating to Moxley's death.
In so ruling, Stodolink denied Skakel's motion to block Ricci's testimony on the grounds all of Skakel's communications while at the Elan School rehab were protected by the physician-patient privilege.
But in its decision, officially released Thursday but made public yesterday, the Appellate Court states Stodolink erred in determining Skakel had not proved Elan School could be considered a mental health facility and therefore subject to confidentiality laws.
The appellate court sided with Skakel's claims that "the psychiatric community recognizes alcohol-related disorders as a mental condition."
Further, in examining lawmakers' intent when formulating privacy laws, which do not explicitly extend to alcohol abuse treatment, the Appellate Court states, "If the legislature had wanted to exclude alcohol-related disorders from the category of mental conditions protected by our state's psychiatrist-patient privilege, it could easily have done so."
In overturning the lower court's decision, the Appellate Court also states Stodolink failed to properly apply federal administrative regulations governing alcohol abuse treatment that were in effect when Skakel attended Elan School, from 1978 to 1980.
Stodolink erred by retroactively applying a 1987 amendment to regulations that exempt otherwise confidential information when it is needed for the investigation or prosecution of serious crime.
"This is a very important victory for patient rights in the state of Connecticut," Grudberg said.
In reversing Stodolink's ruling, the Appellate Court remanded the case to Superior Court, should prosecutors want to present new evidence backing claims Ricci should be forced to testify.
State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict, lead prosecutor in the Moxley case, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Michael Skakel and his brother Thomas are the only suspects identified as being investigated by the grand jury in Bridgeport for the Oct. 30, 1975, murder of 15-year-old Moxley. The Skakels were the girl's Greenwich neighbors at the time, and police said they were with the victim prior to her being slain with a golf club that belonged to the Skakel family.
Michael Skakel was admitted to Elan School after his arrest for a drunken driving incident in which he attempted to run down a police officer before crashing his car in Windham, N.Y. Prosecutors have alleged Skakel made "admissions" about the Moxley murder before being released from the treatment program.