Gregory Coleman, 39, was found dead Tuesday morning in the driveway of his Rochester, N.Y., home, police Lt. Jeff Clark said. Toxicology tests are being conducted.
Coleman once told a one-judge grand jury that Skakel told him: "I'm gonna get away with murder. I'm a Kennedy." He later admitted in court that he was under the influence of heroin when he gave the testimony.
Prosecutor Jonathan Benedict said he would prosecute the Skakel case "without batting an eyelash." He said he would submit for evidence a transcript of Coleman's testimony from pretrial hearings.
"It is a tragedy. He was an engaging individual," Benedict said.
The state had been expected to rely heavily on Coleman's testimony that Skakel admitted killing Martha Moxley in 1975, when both were 15.
Her mother, Dorthy Moxley, said other witnesses can support Coleman's allegation that Skakel confessed.
"I thought he was close to a hero for coming forward," she said of Coleman. "I don't think it mattered if he was on drugs."
Skakel lawyer Michael Sherman said the death was "not terribly surprising." He said Skakel looks upon Coleman's death as "a very sad event."
Skakel, 40, is the son of Rushton Skakel, the brother of Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel. He has pleaded innocent in Moxley's death. A hearing to consider pretrial motions is scheduled for Aug. 15.
Martha Moxley was beaten to death with a golf club which matched a set owned by the Skakels, who lived nearby. No arrests were made in the case for more than 24 years.
Several years later, Coleman and Skakel were classmates at the Elan School in Poland Springs, Maine. Coleman and another former student have testified in pretrial proceedings that Skakel admitted killing Moxley.
Skakel was arraigned as a juvenile, but a juvenile court judge later ruled he should be tried as an adult.
A second hearing was required after the case was transferred to adult court. During that proceeding, Coleman admitted he had been high when he testified to the grand jury.
Sherman had asked Coleman why he told the grand jury Skakel discussed the murder five or six times but later said it was only one or two times.
"I was on drugs when I came before the grand jury," Coleman answered.
Coleman also testified that he used crack cocaine and heroin before a television interview on the case in Rochester.
"Are you on drugs now?" Sherman asked.
No, Coleman said. "Give me a urine test," he added.
"No thanks," Sherman said, drawing laughter from the courtroom but a reprimand from the judge.
Coleman went on to describe his own life filled with alcoholism, drug addiction, a criminal record and homelessness.
Another former classmate, John Higgins, testified that Skakel told him of the killing during a tearful confession.
"He eventually stated that `I must have one it' and eventually stated `I did it,"' Higgins said.
But Higgins admitted he lied to investigators when they first asked him about the alleged confession. He also admitted asking about a $50,000 reward in the case.
Two other Elan students testified for the defense that they never heard Skakel confess.
Coleman was the sixth addict in the Rochester area to die under similar circumstances in the last week. The victims used either heroin or cocaine, but police are unsure if the drugs were adulterated or unusually potent.
Sherman, the defense lawyer, declined to characterize the effect of Coleman's death on the prosecution case.
"I'll let others make a judgment on this," he said.
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