Students use Moxley case to study literature
By Michael Howerton - Greenwich Time
NEW CANAAN - A New Canaan High School English teacher is using the Martha Moxley murder case to show his students the power of literature.
Students in Howard Benedict's senior and junior classes have read books about the unsolved 1975 Greenwich murder for insight on classic literature, themselves and the community they live in.
As part of the assignment, students yesterday interviewed Frank Garr, lead investigator in the ongoing murder case for the State's Attorneys' Office. Benedict's brother, Jonathan Benedict, is the state's attorney whose office has investigated the case.
Michael Skakel was arrested Jan. 19 and charged with Moxley's murder. Skakel and Moxley were both 15 and friends at the time of the murder in the Belle Haven section of Greenwich. Moxley was bludgeoned to death with a golf club the night before Halloween. An arrest in the case came after 25 years, when a grand jury was convened to reinvestigate. A state Superior Court judge in Stamford is now deciding whether Skakel will be tried as a juvenile or as an adult. Skakel has maintained his innocence in the case, and his lawyer, Michael Sherman, has said he will be exonerated.
Garr told the students he expects Skakel will stand trail as an adult and be convicted.
While the lawyers and investigators have concerned themselves with building a case and examining facts, Benedict's English class is more interested in the less quantitative aspects of the case.
"(It's) for an English class, to look at the characters and their choices, ethical and moral," Benedict said.
The students read "A Wealth of Evil" by Timothy Dumas, an account of the murder case, and "A Season in Purgatory" by Dominick Dunne, a novel based on the incident.
The seniors are using the books as an entry point into William Shakespeare's "Hamlet," which also deals with the effects of a concealed murder.
"Hamlet asks all the big questions, like what is the nature of man?" Benedict said. "While the Moxley case is extreme, it's about morality and about people carrying knowledge of evil being done."
The junior American literature classes are reading the books about the Moxley murder as a precursor to "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novel, which deals with a murder amid a world of glamour, reveals the emptiness that can lurk behind affluence, Benedict said.
"Wealth and affluence can be a great agent of opportunity," he said. "But it can also be a stress on self-worth, relationships and the idea of community. The question I try to get the kids to ask is how affluence can affect aspects of character."
Garr, who took the initial police report after the discovery of Moxley's body on Oct. 31, 1975, talked to the classes about the twists of the investigation since it was relaunched in 1991. More information about the case became public, which brought new scrutiny to Skakel's story.
Garr, not a usual guest speaker in English classes, said he thought Benedict's class was making good use of the case material. The economic similarities of Greenwich and New Canaan and the young age of the victim make the story compelling for the class, he said.
"It's fascinating," Garr said. "Everyone loves a murder mystery."
Students peppered him with questions about the case during the hour-long session.
A student asked whether Skakel would receive a fair trail.
"There is no question," Garr said. "It will be fair, and I'm confident we'll get a conviction."
Students asked whether the Greenwich police were prepared to investigate the crime in 1975.
"Greenwich does not have a lot of murders, which is good," Garr said. "But that doesn't mean they weren't prepared or out of their league. It could have been moving quicker if they were more used to this kind of matter."
Garr said he was sure the judge would send the case to adult court. He said rumors that the state would drop the case if it remained in juvenile court were false.
Garr said the Moxley murder is the most compelling case he has worked on.
Benedict said he chose to use the books about the case to show the students a bridge between the world they are familiar with and literature, which grapples with similar themes.
"Our goal is to get the kids to read not just for pleasure, but to ask questions and become critical about who they are and where they live," Benedict said. "There is that bridge to try to clarify what is our position in the universe."
Students said the course has given them a good opportunity to study the nature of man.
"We are focusing on what influences man, the society, economics, the influence of power," said Lindsey Kister, 17. "In Shakespeare and other places, man acts the same. His nature remains."
She said the course allowed the students to ask themselves about the character of their community.
Craig Coutermansh, 18, said the Moxley case was a lesson in the corrupting and blinding qualities of wealth. Many Greenwich residents refused to believe one of their own may have killed Moxley and immediately looked for outside culprits, he said.
"Man is capable of everything," Coutermansh said. "No one is safe or distant from harm or evil. Many in wealthy communities think they are above all of it, but that's ignorance."