Observers: Judge under pressure in Skakel ruling
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time
According to a widely accepted maxim, the longer a jury deliberates, the better things look for the defendant.
Although he's waiting for a decision from a judge, not a jury, this premise is not necessarily the case for Michael Skakel. The 40-year-old defendant is waiting to find out if he will be tried as a juvenile or an adult for allegedly murdering Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley 25 years ago.
After having found there is "reasonable cause" to believe Skakel committed the crime on Oct. 30, 1975, Juvenile Matters Judge Maureen Dennis presided over a hearing Oct. 20 in which the defense made its arguments as to why Skakel's case should remain in the same juvenile court in which he was arraigned nine months ago.
Under court rules, Dennis has 120 days, or until mid-February, to make her ruling.
Court observers said that the length of time Dennis has been deliberating before making her ruling bodes neither well nor ill for Skakel, who would prefer to remain in juvenile court where his punishment would be minimal, if anything, should he be found guilty. They said that Dennis is taking her time in fashioning a decision because it involves a landmark case that will result in new state case law.
"This is a case of first impression, as far as Connecticut at least, and I would only expect Judge Dennis to be careful, thoughtful and correct in her ruling," said Daniel Weiner, a Stamford criminal defense attorney specializing in juvenile matters.
Every turn in Skakel's case has been unique and precedent setting, beginning with his arraignment March 14, when Dennis decided to open her courtroom - which is usually closed to protect the privacy of juvenile defendants - to the media and public.
"I would say Judge Dennis is a deliberate and careful judge who is carefully considering all of the issues of law" before ruling on the court venue issue, said Joseph Williams, a Greenwich-based attorney and former criminal court clerk. "Any time you make new law it's hard. When you are dealing with issues that have not been definitively decided by the Supreme Court, it takes more time to deal with it than if it were an easily settled question of law."
That Dennis is diligently researching the legal issues is the common refrain among court watchers responding to why her ruling has been so long in coming.
"I can't speak for her, but I would imagine the judge is being careful because it's an important decision," said State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict, who is prosecuting Skakel's case. "I wouldn't interpret anything into that other than she is proceeding very carefully. One hundred and twenty days added to 25 years is not significant. In terms of delay and current crime you worry about the trail growing cold, but in this case, we pretty well completed this investigation two years ago."
In 1998, Benedict presented evidence to a grand jury that resulted in a warrant being issued for Skakel's arrest in January of this year.
The notoriety the case has attained may also be a partial explanation as to why Dennis is taking so long in making up her mind. Skakel is a nephew of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy.
"She is dealing with a very unusual issue in a significant case where she knows she will be second guessed by everyone, by the legal pundits on all the news channels," said Skakel's defense lawyer, Michael Sherman.
Weiner agreed, saying, "With media satellite trucks lining the street outside her courtroom, how could she not be cognizant" of the intense interest? "It's a case of national importance."
Sherman said neither he nor his client is worried about how long Dennis is taking, and they read nothing into her delay in ruling.
"I think the judge is taking as much time she feels she needs to make a very deliberate and complete decision," he said. "It's been 25 years, so we can wait a couple more months."