Conn. Warns on Skakel trial
Case may be dropped without adult finding
By Brian MacQuarrie, Boston Globe
The lead prosecutor in the Martha Moxley murder case said yesterday that the state of Connecticut may drop its effort to convict Michael Skakel if the trial ordered this week is assigned to Juvenile Court.
State's Attorney Jonathan C. Benedict said that, if such a ruling is issued, ''I have a hard time seeing where the state has any remedy'' to prosecute and incarcerate Skakel, 39, in the 1975 slaying of his teenage neighbor in exclusive Greenwich, Conn.
''There is a question whether we'd proceed any further,'' Benedict said.
Although Benedict expressed ''extreme confidence'' that Juvenile Court Judge Maureen Dennis will order Skakel to stand trial in Superior Court, he said that keeping the case in Juvenile Court would reduce the charge against Skakel from murder to juvenile delinquency, and that the statute of limitations probably would bar prosecution.
Defense lawyer Michael ''Mickey'' Sherman said yesterday he is prepared to argue Skakel's innocence in either adult or juvenile court. However, he agreed that any trial before a Juvenile Court judge could result in Skakel's freedom, even if he were convicted.
Dennis ruled Thursday that sufficient evidence exists to try Skakel in Moxley's killing, and that she now will determine where the trial will occur. Under 1975 law in Connecticut, a transfer hearing was required before a juvenile could be tried in Superior Court.
Under current law, Connecticut teenagers are routinely tried in Superior Court in cases of murder and other serious crimes. Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy and cousin to former US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, was 15 years old at the time of Moxley's slaying.
Before Dennis makes her decision, a probation officer must determine whether Connecticut has juvenile facilities to house an adult offender, as well as investigate Skakel's family background, schooling, and mental health.
Such a review is consistent with state law in 1975, when Moxley's bludgeoned body was found under a tree on her family's estate.
Benedict considers this review only a formality before Dennis transfers Skakel's trial to Superior Court. No juvenile correction facility in Connecticut, he said, ''has the ability to deal in any way with a 39- or 40-year-old man.''
But another factor that Dennis could weigh, by statute, is whether the ''safety of the community'' requires Skakel's appearance in adult court and its possibility of lengthy prison time.
This is where Sherman sees his best hope for Juvenile Court. Sherman has said repeatedly to reporters that Skakel has lived ''an exemplary life'' as an adult. And if one goal of juvenile incarceration is rehabilitation, Sherman argues, that need no longer exists in Skakel's case.
Benedict takes the opposite stand. Anyone convicted of murder, even 25 years after the crime, remains a danger to society, Benedict contends.
''It's the most serious crime in any jurisdiction, the crime of murder. That's why there's no statute of limitations,'' Benedict said. ''We're expected to prosecute these acts whenever they come to our attention. And a person, having murdered somebody, should always be considered some threat to the community, no matter how wonderful he has been for the last 25 years.''
David Rosen, a Yale Law School lecturer who has a private practice in New Haven, predicted that the trial will be sent to Superior Court, thus avoiding the ''almost comical anomaly of prosecuting a nearly 40-year-old person in Juvenile Court.''
''The other side of that,'' Rosen added, ''is that the adult court was not designed to prosecute crimes committed by children.''
Indeed, Boston defense lawyer Albert Johnson said that trying Skakel in Superior Court would be ''morally wrong and legally indefensible.'' Skakel would be deprived of the legal protections available to him in 1975, Johnson said.
The purpose of juvenile law at the time of Moxley's death, Johnson said, was to rehabilitate minors. ''It would be legally wrong to subject [Skakel] to any different test,'' Johnson said.