Adult vs. juvenile
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time
STAMFORD - Michael Skakel must be tried as an adult for the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley, a state prosecutor yesterday argued before a juvenile court judge.
Although only 15 when Skakel allegedly murdered his teenage Greenwich neighbor, the law existing at the time allowed for defendants as young as 14 to be tried as adults, State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict told Judge Maureen Dennis.
But that same law also prioritized the rehabilitation of youthful defendants over punishment, defense attorney Michael Sherman reminded the judge, and when it could be shown such defendants were unlikely to offend again, the law in 1975 allowed their cases to remain in juvenile court.
"Mr. Skakel has committed no crime before this incident and committed no crime after this incident," Sherman said. "The safety of the community is not at stake."
The arguments came toward the end of a two-hour hearing regarding a report prepared by Joseph Paquin, the supervising probation officer for Juvenile Matters in the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District. Dennis ordered the report on Aug. 17, upon ruling the prosecution had proved during a preliminary hearing that there was "reasonable cause" to believe Skakel murdered Moxley on Oct. 30, 1975. In her ruling, Dennis said she found credible the testimony of witnesses who claimed Skakel had confessed to them he had murdered Moxley with a golf club.
The judge yesterday did not indicate when she would rule on the court in which Skakel would be tried. It is unclear whether the judge has a deadline. Benedict said he believes Dennis had to make her ruling by Oct. 26, or within 120 days of the reasonable cause hearing. Stamford trial court administrator Lorraine Murphy said Dennis has an additional 120 days after yesterday's hearing.
Benedict said that he may drop the case unless it is transferred to adult court.
He said he is still confident the judge will move the case. But he said if the case is kept in juvenile court, Skakel would face such an insignificant penalty that it may not be worth the trauma to the family of Martha Moxley.
"It's something we have to consider," Benedict said. "If we have no viable remedy, does it make sense to continue?"
Normally, probation reports for the purpose of deciding trial venue would address the likelihood that juvenile defendants would commit future crimes, and whether suitable facilities are available for their rehabilitation.
Paquin testified that his 3-page report did not even address the possibility of Skakel re-offending again because his office had never before had to conduct such a study for a 40-year-old defendant.
In order to evaluate a juvenile's future propensity for crime, according to state statutes, a probation officer would have to review such information as school records, the manner in which the child was being raised by his parents or guardians, and similar criteria not applicable to an adult defendant.
"This report is based on a different kind of investigation than I'm used to," Paquin told the court.
Paquin said he consulted with John Lachapelle, superintendent of the Long Lane School juvenile detention center in Middletown when investigating whether any state juvenile facilities could accommodate Skakel.
"In effect, I asked him if there were any resources suitable for a 39-year-old individual under their care," he said. "The answer was that programs for someone over 18 years of age is beyond their scope."
Under questioning from Sherman, Paquin said that the state has placed juveniles with "special needs" in out-of-state facilities when nothing comparable existed in Connecticut. The defense said later in the hearing that the probation report was inadequate for not having explored out-of-state facilities for his client, who had special needs by virtue of his being an adult.
"It may sound silly, but Mr. Skakel is a juvenile with special needs," Sherman said. "It's not his fault this case has taken 25 years."
Also testifying for the defense yesterday were Joseph Arsenault, a longtime Skakel friend who tutored Skakel, diagnosed as dyslexic, in a program for learning disabled students at Curry College from 1988 to 1991.
"Did you consider him dangerous?" Sherman asked.
"Not at all," Arsenault replied.
"Did you consider him a threat to the community?" Sherman asked.
"Not at all," said the ordained deacon, who officiated at Skakel's wedding. "He was a positive contributor to the community, not a threat to the community."
Another witness testifying that Skakel posed no risk to society was another friend and former Greenwich neighbor, Bernadette Coomaraswamy.
Coomaraswamy had testified at Skakel's reasonable cause hearing in June, at which time she had been asked whether she would fear Skakel if it were proven he had murdered Moxley.
The witness yesterday reiterated her previous answer.
"Even if I thought he did it, knowing what I know of Michael today, I wouldn't feel he was a danger to the community," Coomaraswamy said.
Skakel appeared more relaxed yesterday than he had been during previous court appearances, frequently smiling as he talked with family members and other supporters who gathered around him during recesses. Two of his six siblings were in attendance - Julie and Steven Skakel - as was Anna Mae Skakel, the second wife of Rushton Skakel Sr., the Skakel children's father.
Sitting across the aisle from the Skakels were the murder victim's mother, Dorthy Moxley, and brother, John Moxley.
After the hearing, Dorthy Moxley bristled when asked by reporters about Sherman's comments in court that Skakel should be treated as a juvenile because of the long delay in his prosecution.
"(His) family did not cooperate with the police," she said. "The fact he wasn't caught until 25 years later isn't the fault of the justice system, it's the fault of Michael Skakel."
- The Associated Press contributed to this report