Elan classmates key in decision to try Skakel
STAMFORD, Conn. Michael Skakel's lawyer has repeatedly dismissed statements made by two former classmates who claim the Kennedy cousin confessed in Maine to murdering his teen-age neighbor in 1975.
But a judge relied heavily on their testimony Thursday in ruling that there is sufficient evidence to put Skakel on trial in the 25-year-old murder case.
Juvenile Court Judge Maureen Dennis ruled that Skakel should be held over for trial, but ordered an investigation into whether the 39-year-old man should be tried as an adult or a juvenile.
Skakel is charged with murder in the death of 15-year-old Martha Moxley, who was bludgeoned with a golf club on Oct. 30, 1975. The case is being handled for the time being in juvenile court because Skakel, a nephew of Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel, was 15 at the time of the killing.
The Skakels lived across the street from the Moxleys in Belle Haven, an exclusive gated community in Greenwich. Skakel's father, Rushton, is the brother of Ethel Kennedy.
For years, authorities suspected Skakel's older brother, Thomas, then 17, in the killing. But no arrests were ever made, and the case stalled until a grand jury consisting of a single judge was appointed in 1998. In January, Michael Skakel was arrested based on the grand juror's findings.
In the late 1970s, Skakel attended the Elan School, a residential drug and alcohol treatment center in Poland Spring, Maine. During a Juvenile Court hearing in June, two former Elan students testified that Skakel told them he had killed Martha. Investigators also said the Tony Penna 6-iron used in the crime was traced to a set owned by the Skakels.
In her ruling, Dennis found credible the testimony of three key prosecution witnesses. Two of the witnesses, John Higgins and Gregory Coleman, testified that Skakel confessed to the Moxley murder to them 20 years ago while they were all students at Elan.
Skakel's attorney, Michael Sherman, while cross-examining Higgins and Coleman, attempted to cast doubt on their memories as well as their motives, and questioned why they didn't come forward sooner with Skakel's alleged confessions.
But Dennis, in her ruling, said she found both men's stories believable. The judge also noted that according to testimony during the hearing, Skakel ''was attracted to and/or infatuated'' with Moxley.
The judge cited the testimony by Coleman, who said Skakel told him he was trying to make advances toward Moxley, but that she would not comply, and that he ''drove her skull in'' with a golf club.
Coleman also said Skakel told him, ''I am going to get away with murder. I'm a Kennedy.''
''Of even greater import is the fact that the respondent (Skakel) has, twice, made admissions that he committed the murder, and, once, even bragged that he was 'going to get away with murder,' '' the judge wrote.
Sherman said he does not believe a jury will find Coleman and Higgins believable. He said Skakel is anxious for the case to go to trial.
''He knows that when all the facts are made known and all the evidence is exposed, not only a jury or a judge, but I think the public at large will also see that he is not guilty,'' Sherman said.
The judge ordered that a juvenile probation officer must conduct an investigation into Skakel's background – including things such as Skakel's family life, schooling, mental and physical health – before she rules on the prosecution's request to transfer the case to adult court.
If Skakel is convicted as an adult, he could get life in prison.
It is not clear what penalty Skakel could face as a juvenile, but some legal experts have said he could be spared any punishment at all.