Prosecutors in Connecticut have filed an appeal seeking to reinstate Michael Skakel’s conviction on charges he fatally bludgeoned his neighbor Martha Moxley to death with a golf club in 1975, when they were both 15. Prosecutors are asking the state Supreme Court to reverse a lower court’s ruling that Skakel’s attorney failed to adequately represent him in the 2002 cold case trial where he was sentenced to 20 years to life.
Judge Thomas Bishop granted Skakel, now 53, the nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, a new trial in 2013. Judge Bishop stated in his ruling that Skakel likely would have been acquitted by the jury had the defense focused on the alternative suspect, Thomas Skakel.
Thomas Skakel was the initial suspect of the police because he was the last person to be seen with Moxley. Prosecutors say that the defense highlighting Thomas Skakel’s relationship with Moxley would have bolstered their argument that Michael Skakel killed Moxley out of jealousy. Michael Skakel had admitted to two women that he was aware that his brother had an intimate relationship with the victim the night of the murder and according to prosecutors, told one woman that is what triggered Moxley’s murder.
“To highlight Tommy Skakel’s relationship with Martha would play directly into the state’s hand,” prosecutors wrote, Skakel’s trial attorney, Michael Sherman, “would have been foolish to emphasize the very thing that triggered [Skakel’s] rage: Tommy’s amorous relationship with Martha.”
Skakel’s appellate attorney Hubert Santos said that Thomas Skakel’s encounter with Moxley occurred less than 10 minutes before her murder. The state’s medical examiner said that the crime could have occurred later.
Sherman has defended his trial work saying that there wasn’t enough evidence to argue that Thomas Skakel was the killer and that he had a better case against an entirely different suspect also focused on by police. Judge Bishop rejected that claim saying that Thomas Skakel was a better suspect because he changed his account of the night years later. Thomas Skakel admitted to having an intimate encounter with the victim and the defense could have argued that what started out consensual “turned terribly bad,” the judge wrote noting that the defense only needed to cast doubt that Michael Skakel killed Moxley, not prove that Thomas Skakel killed her.
Prosecutors contend that there is no evidence that Thomas Skakel lost his temper with the victim. Michael Skakel has always maintained his innocence. Prosecutors intend to retry Skakel if their appeal fails. There is no timetable for the appellate ruling.
Judge Bishop also granted the new trial on the grounds that Skakel’s defense failed to locate an alibi witness who would have backed up Skakel’s account that he was at his cousin’s house at the time of the murder and that the defense failed to find a man who had information that challenged the prosecution’s star witness’ claim that Skakel confessed. Prosecutors have objected to those findings as well saying that the man who challenged their star witness is deaf in one ear and that the alibi witness would not have affected the jury’s verdict.
On October 30, 1975, 15-year-old Martha Moxley attended a Halloween party at the Skakel home, one block from her Greenwich, CT home. The next day, her body was found underneath a tree in her family’s backyard. Her pants and underwear were pulled down, but the medical examiner ruled that she had not been sexually assaulted. Pieces of a broken golf club were found nearby. An autopsy indicated that she had been bludgeoned with and then stabbed with the club.
The case quickly went cold. Thomas Skakel was the last person to see Moxley alive that night and had a weak alibi according to investigators. He became the prime suspect. Kenneth Littleton, a live-in tutor who worked for the Skakel family, also was a prime suspect. No one was charged and the case languished. This did not stop several books from being published about the murder, including a fictional account and a book written by Mark Fuhrman, a former LAPD detective, known for his perjury conviction related to the O.J. Simpson trial. Later, William Kennedy Smith became an unofficial suspect after he was acquitted of rape in 1991 and rumors surfaced he was present at the 1975 party. That speculation was discovered to be unfounded.
In 1998, a one man grand jury, rarely used, reviewed the cold case and after 18 months found that there was probable cause to charge Michael Skakel with murder. In 2000, Skakel surrendered to authorities. Skakel was arraigned in juvenile court and the judge ruled that Skakel would be tried as an adult. Skakel was subsequently convicted in 2002 in a controversial trial. The prosecution’s main evidence was a taped book proposal by Michael Skakel, in which he never admitted to killing Moxley. Select quotes from the book proposal were overlaid on graphic crime scene photos. The multimedia presentation was used in closing arguments. The whole tape was played to the jury, but the prosecution’s presentation gave the impression that Skakel was confessing when he was not.
In defense of their controversial trial strategy, which was noted in early appeals, prosecutors stated, “The state engaged in appropriate and effective advocacy by using trial exhibits to highlight certain evidence and inferences…Just as the state should not be deprived of its most valuable evidence unless there is a compelling reason to do so, the state should not be prohibited from making its best arguments…By placing certain exhibits next to defendant’s words…the state was making explicit the inferences it was asking the jury to [make]…This is the job of an advocate.”