In Skakel Defense, R.F.K. Jr.’s Piece Summons Questions

One of the most forceful articles I’ve read in some time was written not by a journalist, but a lawyer. Under the title “A Miscarriage of Justice,” The Atlantic Monthly lately published a long piece by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. arguing that his cousin, Michael Skakel, was wrongly convicted of murder last year in the beating death of Martha Moxley in 1975, when Mr. Skakel and Moxley were both 15. While freely admitting his point of view-“I love Michael,” Mr. Kennedy writes, in part for helping him to recover from alcoholism 20 years ago-the environmental lawyer piled on assertions of fact to contend that media hysteria and class prejudice had driven prosecutors to build a case against his cousin that was terribly thin.

Apart from a polite reference here and there, and a rebuttal by Dominick Dunne in Vanity Fair , Mr. Kennedy’s piece has so far gotten little public attention. Still, the article has quietly fueled a belief in the Connecticut legal community that Mr. Skakel was poorly defended at trial.

“I have long had great doubt and disquiet about the nature and quality of the state’s case against Michael Skakel,” Yale law professor Steven Duke wrote to Mr. Kennedy. The piece had convinced him that Mr. Skakel should have been acquitted.

I’ve now scratched away at the surface of the case myself, and would offer the following version of what happened.

Michael Skakel grew up in a rich, gated community in Greenwich, in a milieu of “unbridled privilege, alcoholism, and an idealistic mythology,” as he has written. When Michael was 12, his mother died of cancer, leaving his father, Rushton Skakel, who was the brother of Ethel Kennedy, to raise seven children with the aid of numerous servants.

Martha Moxley lived next-door. In the words of the prosecutor, she was “a pretty, athletic, flirtatious 15-year-old kid, just beginning to come into womanhood.” She was pursued by several boys in the neighborhood, including Michael and an older brother, Tom.

The last night of Martha’s life, Oct. 30, 1975, was a night of Halloween-driven mayhem. The boys’ father was away. The boys and their new tutor, Ken Littleton, went out for dinner to the Belle Haven Club and had a lot to drink. When they got home, Martha and others were waiting for them in the driveway. Several kids, including Martha, Tom and Michael, sat in Rushton Skakel’s Lincoln listening to music.

A half hour or so later, Martha went missing. The next morning, a schoolgirl found her body under a tree at the edge of the Moxley property. She’d been beaten with a six-iron and, after the club was shattered, stabbed with a portion of its shaft. The murder weapon came from a set of golf clubs owned by the late Mrs. Skakel.

All would agree that the Greenwich police did a lousy job investigating the case. They couldn’t solve it, and-in the view of Leonard Levitt, the journalist who has followed the case most closely-showed a misplaced deference to the Skakel family. For a time, Tom Skakel was a leading suspect.

There matters stood until the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in 1991 in Florida. Mr. Smith’s acquittal fostered a widespread view that he had gotten away with rape because of his family connections and an expensive defense, and the author Dominick Dunne, who had followed the trial, was moved to look into the Moxley case. Mr. Dunne himself had lost a daughter to murder; he wrote a novel based on the Moxley case, A Season in Purgatory .

Connecticut authorities now reopened the case and seemed to focus on the former tutor, Ken Littleton, who had experienced psychological malady following Martha’s death and spiraled into occasional petty crime and aggressive behavior toward women.

Either fearing that his family would be blamed or wanting to get to the bottom of it, Rushton Skakel hired a detective agency to investigate his own household. Sutton Associates compiled “prejudicial” dossiers on brothers Tom and Michael, as well as on Mr. Littleton.

The dossiers showed that both Skakel boys had misled the police about their actions that night. For instance, Tommy now said that he’d had a sexual encounter with Martha, involving petting in the bushes, not long before she died.

In what would become a pattern-media pursuit of the Skakels-a would-be writer who worked for Sutton leaked the files to Dominick Dunne. Mr. Dunne then gave the files to Mark Fuhrman, the former Los Angeles detective who had been disgraced in the O.J. Simpson case. In 1998, Mr. Fuhrman wrote Murder in Greenwich, a best-selling book based partly on the files and pointing the finger at the Skakel boys. As Mr. Kennedy notes in his Atlantic article, the book lit a fire under Connecticut law enforcement.

The most suggestive portrait in the Sutton files was Michael’s. “The runt of the family, he had always been a target for his father’s anger,” Mr. Kennedy writes. He was a tormented boy, dyslexic and with very low self-esteem. He had been an alcoholic starting a year after his mother’s death. His reactions could be “extreme.”

And Michael had blurted weird comments about Martha Moxley’s death. Compelled by his own family to attend a reform school in Maine called Elan-which his lawyer, Mickey Sherman, later described as the “Hanoi Hilton”-Michael was subjected to hazings aimed at speeding his recovery. Rumors about Martha’s death had followed him to Maine, and at one point, Mr. Kennedy says, Mr. Skakel was compelled to carry a large sign reading: “Ask Me How I Killed My Neighbor.”

On several occasions, at Elan and later, Mr. Skakel made statements that suggested he felt guilty over Martha Moxley’s death.

These statements became the strongest evidence against him. Additionally, he told a writer with whom he was preparing a book that on the night of the murder, he had climbed a tree with a view of Martha’s house and masturbated, then wandered around the crime scene and sensed some “presence” in the bushes. He also described feeling discovered when Martha’s mother Dorthy knocked on his door the next morning, looking for her.

Michael Skakel was indicted in 2000 and tried last June. The prosecution produced no physical evidence and no eyewitnesses to link him to the murder, but won the case with a stunning closing argument in which prosecutor Jonathan Benedict put all of Mr. Skakel’s statements together to show that he was guilty mentally. In this presentation, Mr. Benedict projected images of Martha’s body with words from Mr. Skakel’s own mouth.

Since the trial, Mr. Skakel has appealed the conviction, and his family has taken the offensive with the press. Mr. Kennedy’s piece is one sign of that, as is the criticism of the youngest sibling, Steve Skakel, that his brother’s former lawyer, Mickey Sherman, cared more about dining at Elaine’s than preparing for the case, and so mounted a defense that “bordered on incompetency.”

Lawyers in Connecticut have openly questioned Mr. Sherman’s tactics. “No way should the case have been tried that way,” said John R. Williams, a criminal-defense lawyer. “It was not a first-class defense. If you were a public defender or had limited resources, you’d give this kind of defense.”

According to the Skakel family, Mr. Sherman was paid nearly $2 million. Criminal lawyers speak of several errors. Mr. Sherman based his case largely on an alibi (Michael had driven with a brother to a cousin’s house to watch Monty Python ) that couldn’t be proved. He tried to dismiss all the witnesses who heard Mr. Skakel’s admissions as liars and freaks, when he should have conceded the truth of the statements and then explained his client’s admissions by producing an expert witness to describe brainwashing techniques. He didn’t assemble a legal team, but relied on two young assistants (something he bragged about to the jury). He allowed a policeman on the jury.

For his part, Mr. Sherman said: “People expected us to use smoke and mirrors and to parade paid-for experts, as was the case in O.J. and William Kennedy Smith. We didn’t need to have any shills here. The truth is, I’ve never done as well in my life during the state’s case.”

He added: “The Skakel family being upset with me, I can understand. When you win, you’re a hero; when you lose, you’re Satan.”

The biggest devil in Mr. Kennedy’s piece is the media. He argues that Mr. Dunne and Mr. Fuhrman initiated a reckless crusade against Mr. Skakel out of their feelings that a powerful family could escape scrutiny. Indeed, Mr. Fuhrman exempted Ken Littleton from blame for the crime, in part on the ridiculous grounds that he did not have “a powerful family behind him.”

“Dunne says he has ‘contempt for the behavior of the Skakel family’ because they come from privilege and abused it,” Mr. Kennedy writes. “But the capacity to write, to publish and to hold public attention are privileges that Dunne and Fuhrman have abused. The media have duties too.”

A Fresh Stage

Mr. Kennedy’s piece marks a fresh stage in the relationship of the media and celebrity, in which the media have gained ascendancy, in which the privileged are compelled to enter the public discussion themselves to counteract reporters. Recall how little Ted Kennedy said about Chappaquiddick at the time-then try to imagine the media onslaught he and the Martha’s Vineyard police would face under similar circumstances today.

“I have to counter the bashing of my family,” Steve Skakel said. “When my father passed away recently, some of the headlines summing up his life made me sick.”

Until the public hears fully from Michael and Tom Skakel, though, no public-relations offensive can remove the suspicion that some Skakels know more about the case than they have let on.

“On the surface, Kennedy appears to make a powerful case,” says Len Levitt, the Newsday reporter who is writing a book on the case, Conviction , to come out in 2004. “But anyone who knows the case knows that this is based on a tissue of lies. You cannot believe what Michael or his family say. I admire Kennedy for defending his cousin, but he’s misinformed.”

The best support for this view comes from Mr. Skakel himself, who wrote a book proposal several years ago offering to betray the Kennedy family by describing “the devious workings of a propaganda machine that works night and day to hide the sordid truth behind a scrim of patriotic idealism, hero-worship, and religiosity.”

Michael Skakel claimed that the machine had turned on him. According to Mr. Skakel, when he had taken the side of a baby-sitter with whom his cousin, Michael Kennedy, had had an affair when she was 14, encouraging the girl to seek a therapist and tell her parents about the matter, relatives sought to silence him by leaking rumors about his involvement in the Moxley murder.

Neither Michael nor his brother Thomas took the stand at the trial.

The best analysis of the situation was written recently by a lawyer who dubbed himself “Intrigued” and posted in the Martha Moxley discussion group at the Ezboard Web site:

“I’ve been very intrigued by comments reported in the aftermath of Michael Skakel’s indictment. ‘When the time is right, everyone in the press is going to get the story and Michael will be exonerated from this terrible situation,’ Thomas Skakel said, as reported in the Greenwich Post on Feb. 11, 2000. He reportedly added, ‘I know Michael didn’t do it.’ Asked what made him so sure, the older brother replied, ‘I can’t say that right now. I’m not at liberty right now. But as soon as I get the go-ahead, I’ll let you know.’

“I’m waiting.”

At the same time, “Intrigued” reasoned that Mr. Kennedy’s piece had reopened scrutiny of a weak case.

“The theory and evidence pointing to Michael largely revolves around the theory of a cover-up and Michael’s inability to maintain it. The theory relies heavily on numerous elements of speculation and conjecture, with healthy doses of class prejudice ….

“Much [of the prosecution’s case] arouses a ‘gut reaction of doubt.'”

The Moxley case has been contaminated almost from the start by agendas on both sides: the desire to protect a family’s image and to pursue it. But in the end, it involves an individual who is actually deserving of sympathy. For all his wealth, Michael Skakel has led a difficult life, one that no one could envy. He lost his mother when he was 12 and was persecuted by his father. In a highly presentable family, he was never very attractive: dumpy, blowzy, red-faced. In adulthood, he has struggled toward a scouring self-awareness and shown great kindness to others. Maybe his misery really springs from his having killed the girl he lusted after at 15. But his own protestations of his innocence are moving-and besides, “maybe” isn’t good enough.

The state’s failure to achieve justice is reflected by the mystery that continues to shroud Martha’s death, notwithstanding Skakel’s conviction. The case was built chiefly on supposition, and the well-informed still play Clue with four or five possible suspects. Until real evidence emerges, we’ll never know for sure who did this.

On the full-disclosure front: I sought guidance from Mr. Dunne on a project I undertook involving a murder victim’s family, and he gave it to me. My editor, Peter Kaplan, is a very close friend of Robert Kennedy. I have never met Mr. Kennedy. Still, I admire the way he has waded into the tabloid world to answer questions about his family. By doing so, he has thrown off the sense of entitlement, privilege and protection that has at times surrounded his family, and for which it appears that his pudgy cousin has been made a scapegoat. /