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Free Michael Skakel

Monday, 18 September 2006 12:00 AM

I could hardly be accused of being an ally of the Kennedy clan, but on one issue I am. It's the matter of their cousin, Michael Skakel, who has been the victim of a serious injustice.

To be convicted of murder, one must be proven guilty

I have felt this way for some time after reading extensively about the case, which recently made its way back into the news. Skakel's attorney in Washington, D.C., Ted Olson, filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn Skakel's June 2002 conviction by a Norwalk, Conn., jury.

It should be noted that Olson, a former Bush administration solicitor general and husband of late conservative TV commentator Barbara Olson, also is no member of the Kennedy fan club.

But the facts behind Skakel's conviction simply don't hold up.

No one disputes that on the night of Oct. 30, 1975, a 15-year-old gregarious blonde named Martha Moxley was bludgeoned to death near her parents' Greenwich, Conn., home, after leaving the Skakels' nearby home.

Though the case remained a mystery for many years, it resurfaced with Mark Fuhrman's 1998 best-selling book,

Fuhrman's book is the most detailed account of the case, laying out the known facts of the crime and the mishandled police investigation that followed. It also seems to point the finger at Skakel's brother, Thomas, though with purely circumstantial evidence. Fuhrman's book, in part, helped spark official interest in the case and eventually led to Michael Skakel's conviction for murder.

In my opinion, Michael Skakel may be as innocent a victim as Moxley, and his celebrity status through the "Kennedy connection" may be his only "crime."

Skakel isn't really a Kennedy. His father, Rushton, was the brother of Ethel Skakel, who married Robert F. Kennedy.

But for better or worse, the Skakels were part of the extended Kennedy family. VIP status often helps in getting preferential treatment in many aspects of life. But celebrity status, as Skakel has discovered, can be a double-edged sword, drawing negative attention.

For many years after Moxley's death, allegations had simmered that one of the six Skakel boys had murdered the teen. The claim was made — one I do not believe is supported by the facts — that the Greenwich police were stymied by the powerful Kennedy-connected family.

The view of a police cover-up was fueled by writer Dominick Dunne, who used the Skakel case as the basis of his 1993 book,

For a long time before Michael Skakel was the lead suspect, Dunne had fingered Thomas Skakel as Moxley's likely killer. Dunne also got Fuhrman interested in the case after Dunne was tipped off that the Skakel family had hired its own private detectives to re-investigate the case. The family had hoped that by doing so they could put to rest claims that one of theirs had murdered young Moxley. (In my mind, the family's decision to do this is not exactly the action of a guilty party.)

In the course of that private investigation, Michael Skakel admitted that around midnight on the night of the murder, he was drunk, climbed a tree outside the Moxley home, threw stones at Moxley's window, and masturbated.

Though this account drew Skakel a bit closer to the crime, the facts showed it did not jibe with him as the killer.

For instance, the police believe Moxley was murdered around 9:30 p.m. — far removed from the time Skakel climbed the tree late that night.

And if Skakel did indeed murder Moxley, why would he admit to his teenage adventure that night?

Even more compelling evidence that should have exonerated Skakel was the condition of Moxley's body and the facts of the crime scene. The killer beat Moxley with a golf club in her driveway — with such force that the 6-iron broke into four pieces. After doing so, the killer then forcefully drove the broken shaft into her. He then dragged her body nearly 150 feet. It's difficult to believe that Skakel, then 15 years old, described as "scrawny" and weighing about 120 pounds, could have pulled off such a caper.

Still, the bottom line of this case is this: The police never found any forensic evidence linking Skakel to the crime, nor did they ever produce a witness placing him near the scene of the crime.

At the time of the murder, Skakel also had a strong alibi, as several family members and friends said he was with them, some eight miles from Moxley's home at the time of her death. What happened to the alibi? One of his brothers with him that night insists his account is accurate. But another witness, a family friend, said at his trial that after so many years, she simply could no longer remember whether Skakel was present with the group that night.

This foggy memory was compounded by Skakel's own statements. At the age of 17, Skakel was sent off to Elan, a reform school in Poland Springs, Maine. Claims would later be made that Skakel admitted at a group-therapy meeting that he had killed Moxley.

But Skakel was under severe stress during his stay at Elan. His cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in a letter to a judge urging leniency for Skakel at his sentencing, said Skakel — who had earlier suffered under a "harsh and occasionally violent alcoholic father who both ignored and abused him" — had been sent to "Elan, where he was beaten, tortured, and brutalized for two years."

Skakel, he asserted, was even "forced to wear a sign around his neck from morning to lights-out, saying, 'Ask me why I murdered my friend.'"

What's more, the only Elan resident to state without equivocation that Skakel had admitted to the murder was a 20- to 25-bags-a-day heroin addict who died of a drug overdose in 2001.

Even if Skakel had said at Elan that he killed Moxley, people in such places can often make outlandish statements. It is difficult to believe this could be the basis of a conviction for murder, especially coming from a person with a long history of mental and addiction problems.

Odd, then, that a jury of 12 men and women would convict him.

But inside the Connecticut courtroom, the prosecutor apparently dazzled the jury with a slideshow that appeared to offer Skakel's confession. Showing gruesome images of Moxley's body, the prosecution then cited a passage from Skakel's own book proposal that read: "And I woke up to Mrs. Moxley saying, 'Michael, have you seen Martha?' I was like, 'Oh, my God! Did they see me last night?'"

What the prosecution left out was that Skakel was referring to his masturbating in the tree, not to killing Moxley.

For sure, the local prosecutor and the police were eager to close this case for almost three decades. It had been an open sore and an embarrassment to the authorities.

Who killed Martha Moxley? I cannot tell you. There are several suspects, some more plausible than the then-young Michael Skakel, including a live-in tutor at the Skakel home who was judged to be lying when he denied killing Moxley during three lie detector tests.

But without any witnesses, any forensic evidence, and a compelling motive, it would be unfair for me to point fingers.

One thing is clear. There is no serious evidence pointing to Skakel.

His attorneys are fighting to have the conviction tossed out on technicalities.

It should be, only because it should have been dismissed as a gross miscarriage of justice several years ago.

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I could hardly be accused of being an ally of the Kennedy clan, but on one issue I am. It's the matter of their cousin, Michael Skakel, who has been the victim of a serious injustice. To be convicted of murder, one must be proven guilty I have felt this way for...
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Monday, 18 September 2006 12:00 AM
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