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The Skakel prosecution rests, but how comfortably?

By John Springer
Court TV

NORWALK, Connecticut (Court TV) -- The road prosecutors navigated in pursuit of Michael Skakel during the Kennedy cousin's ongoing murder trial was a bumpy one, with many unexpected hairpin turns.  

But after 34 witnesses and 107 exhibits, prosecutors were confident when resting their case Tuesday that jurors had heard sufficient evidence to convict the 41-year-old defendant of the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley. Skakel and Martha were both 15 then, and neighbors in Belle Haven, an exclusive section of the affluent shoreline community of Greenwich.  

Skakel, prosecutors tried to show, had motive: sibling rivalry. He liked Martha, a popular and pretty high school sophomore with long blonde hair and a bright smile. Martha suggested in her diary that she did not feel the same way about Michael but did not seem to mind that his older brother by two years, Thomas Skakel, was "making moves" on her.

Thomas Skakel, in fact, was the prime suspect for many years based on the fact that he was flirting with Martha shortly before she was beaten to death with a golf club from the Skakel home.  

The defendant also had opportunity, prosecutors contend. One witness, Andrea Renna, testified that Michael Skakel was at home when she left the Skakel residence at 9:45 p.m. the night of the killing.

The testimony contradicts a defense claim that Skakel left in a car with two brothers and a cousin at about 9:30 p.m. to drive their cousin across town. Skakel, however, told a book writer in 1997 that he left the Skakel home at 8:15 p.m.  

Finally, and perhaps most important for the prosecution, Skakel told numerous witnesses different stories at a Maine treatment center for troubled youths in 1978 and 1979 that call his guilt into question.  

He told fellow Elan residents Elizabeth Arnold, Dorothy Rogers, Chuck Seigan and Alice Dunn that he did not know if he killed Martha because he could not remember and may have blacked out from drinking, according to their testimony. Elan graduate John Higgins testified that during a long, emotional monologue Skakel went from saying he did not know what happened to finally admitting tearfully, "I did it."  

Then came the posthumous testimony of former Elan resident Gregory Coleman. He died of a heroin overdose last year, but jurors listened to a reading of testimony Coleman gave during a pretrial hearing in which he claimed Skakel had told him that he killed Martha because she "spurned his advances."  

"I am going to get away with murder. I am a Kennedy," Coleman quoted Skakel, who is a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, as saying one night in 1978.  

Raising further doubt as to Skakel's whereabouts and frame of mind that night, two of Skakel's former friends testified that he told them in separate conversations in 1987 and 1991 that he did not kill Martha but claimed he was in a tree outside her house masturbating on the night of the murder.

One of the friends, Michael Meredith, told jurors that Skakel said he was watching Martha through a window. The other, Andrew Pugh, testified that he assumed that Skakel was referring to the large pine tree he and Skakel often climbed in their youth -- the pine tree under which Martha's body was found lying face down with her pants and underwear pulled down to her ankles.  

Prosecution pitfalls

But the prosecution's case is far from airtight. It suffers from the passage of so many years, the shaky and sometimes contradictory testimony of some of its witnesses, and errors made by investigators, who had not been faced with a homicide in Greenwich for many years.  

Among other things, jurors heard from prosecution witnesses that:

-- Greenwich police never obtained a search warrant for the Skakel residence, even after a police officer noticed a sister club to the one used to kill Martha sitting in plain view in the mud room of the Skakel home on the day Martha's body was discovered. Retired police officer Daniel Hickman insisted he saw the broken golf club's handle, which police claim was never found despite an exhaustive search, protruding from Martha's neck when he arrived at the crime scene.  

-- Police focused almost exclusively on Thomas Skakel as the prime suspect early on because he was the last one to be seen with Martha when she alive and told a story about leaving her to do a homework assignment that he was never given. Prosecutors refused in 1976 to approve an arrest warrant application in which police claimed they had probable cause to believe Thomas Skakel murdered Martha.  

-- pair of blue jeans and sneakers owned by Michael Skakel and recovered from the trash were lost during forensic testing. The results, however, were not lost and did not yield anything to link the defendant to the murder.  

-- Greenwich police were told by former Elan resident Dorothy Rogers in 1980 that Skakel admitted two years earlier that he could have killed Martha during a blackout. A detective took a statement from Rogers, who was in custody for suspicion she burned down her parent's home in Greenwich, but investigators assigned to the Moxley case did not follow up the allegation for many years.  

-- Adding yet another former suspect to the mix, investigators at one time believed so strongly that former Skakel family tutor Kenneth Littleton was the killer that they got his ex-wife to tell Littleton that he had blacked out and confessed to killing Martha. Police wired a Boston hotel room for sound in 1992, but Mary Baker was unable to get Littleton to implicate himself on the tape despite trying for two hours.  

-- Witness John Higgins, who claims Skakel admitted killing Martha, was lied to by an investigator when he was told a phone conversation was not being taped. Higgins swore in the conversation that he did not hear Skakel confess to the crime. On the stand, however, he said he had lied initially about not hearing Skakel incriminate himself because he did not want to get involved.  

-- Gregory Coleman, the witness who overdosed and died last year, shot up with heroin an hour before he testified to the grand jury in 1998. Coleman was sick from heroin withdrawal at a pretrial hearing in April 2001 and insisted that was why his testimony changed materially during three separate visits to the witness stand.

The defense is expected to call fewer than a dozen witnesses during its case, including several who will try to narrow the time of death to 10 p.m. and place Michael Skakel across town at his cousin's house between 9:30 p.m. and 11:15 p.m. or 11:30 p.m.

Although possible, it is unlikely that Michael Skakel will be called to testify.




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