CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen previews what promises to be the contentious trial of Michael Skakel, the Kennedy relative accused of a murder that occurred 27 years ago.
Martha Moxley was her generation's JonBenet Ramsey, the little Colorado beauty queen whose murder in 1996 remains unsolved and unabashedly controversial. Back in October 1975, Moxley, too, was young and beautiful with a wonderful future before her. And then, just like Ramsey, Moxley was brutally killed -- probably by someone she knew -- on her own exclusive property in a town near a big urban center.
Like Ramsey, Moxley's murder was investigated at first by generally hapless local law enforcement officials, who either didn't go by the book or hadn't read enough chapters of it. The crime scenes at both the Ramsey house and the Moxley house were improperly disturbed -- onlookers were allowed to trample through and over the actual crime scene. Witnesses who should have been separated and interrogated right off the bat were left to mingle with other witnesses or allowed to let their memories lapse after days, weeks, and even months.
In the Moxley case, nearly three decades went by until law enforcement disgust and frustration and doggedness coalesced with celebrity attention and gossip to percolate up into a grand jury indictment and now a murder trial. It took Connecticut authorities nearly 27 years to bring someone, anyone, to trial for Moxley's murder. Does this mean that we'll all be talking about a Ramsey murder trial in 2023? Don't bet against it.
And don't bet against a real donnybrook of a murder trial for Michael Skakel, whose name we know mostly because he is a relative of the sprawling Kennedy clan. All the ingredients for such a courtroom battle royale are present. There's a beautiful victim mourned by a sympathetic family; a wealthy defendant with links to a family everyone in America follows; a charismatic defense attorney who knows how to play the media; good cops and bad cops; confessions and allegations of drug abuse. Why, the Moxley case has what every celebrity trial is supposed to have these days: books written about it by Dominick Dunne and Mark Fuhrman!
Fairfield County prosecutors contend that Skakel, then 15, used his mother's golf club to bludgeon Moxley to death on the night of October 30, 1975. They'll back up their contention mostly with circumstantial evidence they say proves that Skakel had both the motive (jealously, because his older brother might have had a relationship with her) and the opportunity (a few unaccounted-for hours on the night she was killed) to murder the Greenwich teenager.
Then state attorneys are likely to try to prove that Skakel confessed to the crime years later when he was an in-patient at a substance-abuse center in Maine. They'll even focus, perhaps, on the way Skakel's story allegedly has changed over the years. In his book, for example, Fuhrman focused a lot on that particular wrinkle in the story -- the notion that Skakel told investigators one thing right after the murder and then another thing later. Does that help prove that he committed the crime? Or does it merely prove that he lied about what he was up to that night? There's a big difference in what ought to be implied if jurors buy into the notion that Skakel wasn't playing straight with the cops.
Going into the trial, there are other questions about the government's case. We don't know whether prosecutors have any eyewitnesses who can put Skakel at the scene of the crime at the time Moxley was brutally killed. We don't know whether any of the other people who were with Moxley on the evening of her death will say something now that they didn't say 27 years ago when they first were questioned about the crime. And we don't know if advancements in forensic science since 1975 mean that state attorneys will be able somehow to link Skakel to Moxley via DNA evidence.
We do know that Skakel's attorney, Mickey Sherman, will have plenty of ammunition going for him as he tries to generate reasonable doubt about the prosecution's case. First, the passage of so much time by itself will almost certainly generate some doubt about the testimony of "fact" witnesses called to tell jurors about what happened back in October 1975. Second, you can be sure that Sherman will savagely attack the credibility of any witnesses who come forward to say that Skakel confessed to them during a drug-rehab stint. One such witness already has died since offering such testimony during the pre-trial phase of the case. Others may wish they have by the time the defense is through with them.
Look for the defense also to focus upon other suspects in Moxley's murder, especially Kenneth W. Littleton, who worked in the Skakel home in 1975 and who generated a significant amount of interest and attention from law enforcement officials. Every theory law enforcement officials used to point a finger at someone else likely will be brought up by Skakel's attorneys as proof that even the cops weren't sure about who did it. Even Skakel's brother, Thomas, for decades the prime suspect in Moxley's death, may factor into the defense strategy on this topic. And attorney Sherman almost certainly will attack the work of the Greenwich cops in the early days of the investigation. He'll argue to jurors that the crime scene was so contaminated from October 31, 1975 onward, and the investigatory tactics so incomplete, that no conclusion can be trusted.
Conventional wisdom has it that absent irrefutable scientific evidence or a bullet-proof confession that suddenly is made or uncovered, old murder cases are awfully difficult for prosecutors to win. That old saw will be put to the test when Michael Skakel goes on trial with the rest of his life on the line.