Skakel Eludes Grand Jury -- For Now

By J.A. Johnson Jr.
(Staff Writer)

A state prosecutor yesterday abruptly canceled a hearing in Florida meant to compel testimony from a key material witness in the grand jury investigation of the 1975 murder of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley.

The hearing, which had been scheduled for Sept. 11, was to determine the competence of 74-year-old Rushton Skakel Sr., father of two suspects in the Moxley case - Thomas Skakel and Michael Skakel. Attorneys for Rushton Skakel requested the hearing in advance of a Florida judge's ruling on whether Skakel could be compelled to travel to Bridgeport to give testimony in the case. After Skakel publicly stated Aug. 28 he was refusing to comply with a subpoena to appear before the Moxley grand jury, his attorneys claimed in a motion filed Wednesday that Skakel was suffering from health problems that rendered him incompetent as a witness.

Although Connecticut State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict yesterday confirmed he asked that the hearing be canceled, he did not preclude the possibility Skakel's testimony would be sought at a later date.

"We've decided to not pursue it at this time," the prosecutor said. "We have not dropped Rush Skakel (as a potential witness) - let that be clear." He would not elaborate. On Thursday, Benedict's lead investigator on the Moxley case, Inspector Frank Garr, called the claim of incompetency a ploy to keep Skakel from having to testify.

Any testimony Skakel might give the grand jury is seen by court observers as potentially key to the case, as for years investigators have wanted to know what occurred in the Skakel household in the days following Moxley's murder.

The Skakel family were neighbors of Martha Moxley when she was slain the evening of Oct. 30, 1975. Thomas and Michael Skakel, who were 17 and 15, respectively, at the time of the murder, were both with the victim prior to the crime. Officials have said the weapon used to bludgeon and stab the 15-year-old girl was a golf club from a set of clubs owned by the Skakel family. Although attorneys for the brothers have maintained their clients' innocence, authorities have accused the Skakels of hindering the investigation because of their repeated refusals to be interviewed.

Timothy Dumas, who this year published a true-crime book about the Moxley case, said he was "disappointed" with Benedict's decision not to forge ahead with attempts to have the senior Skakel testify. He said the grand jury, which began hearing testimony in July, may have lost momentum as a result.

"It seems to me it was going full-steam ahead," the former Greenwich News managing editor said. "Rush Skakel had acted stupidly by making headlines by the fact he wasn't going to comply (with the subpoena), which in my mind only further implicates the Skakels in some sort of cover-up. And now, for the moment, it looks like he's off the hook. Hopefully, they will get him back on the hook in no time at all, but that remains to be seen."

Martin County Assistant State's Attorney Robert Belanger, who was prepared to argue on Connecticut's behalf in a Stuart, Fla., courtroom, said he was surprised with Benedict's decision. "I was fully prepared to go ahead with it," he said of his planned arguments before Martin County Circuit Judge John Fennelly.

Belanger said he had subpoenaed a reporter with the Palm Beach Post who was prepared to testify about an interview she had last week with Skakel. In that interview, the Post reported, Skakel said he was refusing to come to Connecticut to testify. "My wife and I have totally negated that," he told the newspaper. "I wasn't there personally; I was hunting when the (murder) happened. I just wasn't there, and was there after the fact."According to Belanger, those comments alone could have been used to prove Skakel's competence. "Those comments show a person with a fairly good knowledge of where he was and what he was doing," Belanger said. "Heck, I couldn't tell you what I was doing in October 1975."

In their motion, attorneys Richard Lubin and Robert Watson said, "Rushton Skakel Sr. has had long-standing health problems which bear directly on his ability to give testimony. . Currently, Mr. Skakel is being treated by three separate physicians. (We have) learned that Mr. Skakel's illnesses render him incompetent to testify."

Dumas agreed the incompetency claim may have been a ploy, as he said he recently spoke to one of Skakel's relatives during a book signing for his "Greentown: Murder and Mystery in Greenwich, America's Wealthiest Community." "My information is he's fine," the author said. "I asked the relative how Rush was, and she said he was fine." Dumas speculated that Benedict canceled the Florida hearing to buy time in order to gather evidence disputing Skakel's claim of incompetency.

Thanks to J.A. Johnson Jr. for the article.