Trial in '1975 Killing Is Bound By Law
Not Meant for Adult

STAMFORD, Conn., Aug. 18 -- In making the crucial decision of whether Michael Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy charged with the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley, is to stand trial as a juvenile or as an adult, Judge Maureen D. Dennis must navigate a thicket of quarter-century-old juvenile justice laws never intended for application to a middle-aged defendant.

Mr. Skakel, now 39, is charged as a juvenile because he was 15 when Miss Moxley, a neighbor in the gated Belle Haven enclave of Greenwich, was bludgeoned to death with a golf club. The prosecution has asked Judge Dennis to transfer the case to Superior Court, where conviction by a jury could bring a sentence of life imprisonment. Conviction as a juvenile could mean no jail time at all.

On Thursday, Judge Dennis ruled that there was "reasonable cause," based on evidence presented at a hearing in June, for Mr. Skakel to stand trial. Meticulously following the letter of the law, she has now ordered an investigation, to be conducted by a juvenile probation order, that will provide a profile of Mr. Skakel. Using that profile, the judge will then answer several questions posed by the 25-year-old juvenile justice law.

To transfer the case from juvenile to adult court, the judge must find that "there is no state institution designed for the care and treatment of children" to which Mr. Skakel can be sent if convicted, or that the "safety of the community requires" Mr. Skakel to be detained as an adult. She also must find that the Superior Court is a "more effective setting" for deciding the case and that an adult prison is "more suitable" for Mr. Skakel's "care or treatment."

The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that in the context of juvenile delinquency, the law must be applied as it existed at the time of the offense. The statutes have been revised many times since 1975, and under current law Mr. Skakel's case would have been automatically transferred. But neither the current law nor the 1975 law cover the situation of a middle-aged defendant. A grown man being tried for a killing allegedly committed as a boy is a first in the state, leaving Judge Dennis unable to rely on precedent.

Both the initial finding of reasonable cause by Judge Dennis and the follow-up investigation she has ordered were required under the law that in 1975 governed the transfer of murder cases involving juvenile defendants to Superior Court. Another section of the law specified that the investigating probation officer should collect detailed information about the juvenile defendant.

"Such investigation shall consist of an examination of the parentage and surroundings of the child, his age, habits and history, and shall include also an inquiry into the home conditions, habits and character of his parents or guardians," the section stated. "It shall further contain a report of the child's school adjustment" and may include a court-ordered "physical or mental examination or both."

Judge Dennis is prohibited by judicial rules from discussing the case. But experts on the state's juvenile justice system said that she would use the information provided by the probation officer to draw conclusions on the questions raised in the statute.

"The judge has to make certain findings, and I think it's through that investigation that she will get the information that she needs to make those findings," said Francis J. Carino, who was the state's chief juvenile prosecutor for 17 years and now works in the chief state's attorney's office.

Mr. Carino said that the old juvenile justice statutes viewed the transfer of a child's case to Superior Court as a grave decision, and therefore required a thorough investigation to understand the circumstances of the juvenile's life, with an eye toward treatment and rehabilitation.

"Before the judge makes a decision as drastic as a transfer to the adult court for a 14- or 15-year-old child, the judge has to make sure that there is nothing in the juvenile court that can meet the child's needs," he said. "Let's look at what's going on with this child before we make this drastic decision." In recent decades, he said, the laws have changed to allow quick transfers of the most serious juvenile offenders.

Under current law, investigations similar to the one to be conducted of Mr. Skakel are required so that judges can decide how to punish or treat a convicted juvenile, similar to presentencing reports that are prepared for adult convicts.

"The judge gets a complete picture of the child and the family and is then able to make a disposition of the case," Mr. Carino said.

Mr. Skakel's lawyer, Michael Sherman, said he believed that the probation officer's investigation would confirm a point that he sought to make during the reasonable cause hearing in June: that Mr. Skakel's life over the last 25 years proves that he is not a danger to society and that the case should not be transferred to Superior Court.

"The judge has to base her decision on what she thinks the future holds for a young person," Mr. Sherman said in an interview today. "Here we have the benefit of knowing the future. It's behind us. We own the crystal ball."

Still, he said that wherever the case is tried his client would be found not guilty. "The bottom line is: is he guilty?" Mr. Sherman said. "I do not believe for a minute that Michael Skakel committed this crime, and I have no doubt that a jury or a judge will make that determination."

It is unclear what would happen if Judge Dennis decided to try Mr. Skakel as a juvenile and he was ultimately found guilty. "If the case went on and stayed in juvenile and if there was a conviction, there wouldn't be a juvenile program that could accept an adult," said Ginny Apple, a spokeswoman for the state's judicial branch.

Miss Moxley's mother, Dorthy, who has long pressed for justice in the case, said today that she was hopeful it would be heard in Superior Court. "This decision of Judge Dennis's was only half of what we wanted to hear, but you know I have patience and I am willing to wait for the other half," Mrs. Moxley said.

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