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Moxley Case: Kennedy cousin convicted of 1975 murder

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Editor's Note: As part of CNN.com's new Crime section, we are archiving some of the most interesting content from CourtTVNews.com. This story was first published in 2002.

(Court TV) -- Twenty-four years after he allegedly told a reform school classmate, "I am going to get away with murder. I am a Kennedy," the 41-year-old nephew of Ethel Kennedy was convicted Friday of the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley.

Michael Skakel, standing with his hands clasped behind his back, winced and shifted his feet slightly when the jury foreman announced the verdict at 10:55 a.m. A gasp arose from the gallery. Skakel's brother David sobbed quietly.

After the verdict was read, the judge asked the defense if they wished to comment.

"I'd like to say something," Skakel said. But Skakel's lawyer, Mickey Sherman, interrupted his client, saying, "No sir."

The defendant was taken into custody immediately following the verdict, which came on the jury's fourth day of deliberations. Skakel faces up to life in prison, but could get at as few as 10 years, when he is sentenced July 19.

Martha's mother, Dorthy Moxley, also cried softly when the verdict was read, but she was beaming as she left the courtroom at the same time as Skakel was being led out in handcuffs. She hugged her son John and former detective Mark Fuhrman, who wrote a book about the case implicating Skakel in the killing.

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, a tearful but smiling Dorthy Moxley said it was "truly Martha's day."

"Again today like I've been doing for 27 years, I was praying that I can find justice for Martha. This whole thing was about Martha," Moxley said.

Martha's brother's John expressed his gratitude to the jurors, judge and prosecution team, but acknowledged that the verdict was bittersweet. "It's not going to bring Martha back," he said.

27 years later

On Halloween in 1975, Martha's body was discovered lying beneath a pine tree on her parent's property in Belle Haven, an affluent neighborhood in the affluent shoreline community of Greenwich, Conn. Although her pants and underwear had been pulled down to her ankles, an autopsy determined that she had not been sexually assaulted.

The discovery of pieces of a broken Toney Penna six-iron led investigators quickly to the home of Rushton Skakel Sr., whose late wife owned a set of Pennas. For years, police believed that Michael Skakel's older brother by two years, Thomas Skakel, killed Martha near her own driveway and then dragged the body under a nearby pine tree where it was found.

After investigators failed to convince a prosecutor that they had probable cause to charge Thomas Skakel, the focus of the investigation shifted somewhat to Kenneth Littleton, the Skakel family's tutor who started work on the night of the murder.

In 1992, investigators convinced Littleton's ex-wife, Mary Baker, to meet him in a Boston hotel room to try to get him to implicate himself on tape. As police monitored the conversation from another room, Baker tried for two hours to get Littleton to confess by insisting that the couple had no chance of reconciling unless he told her the "big secret" he had alluded to during their marriage.

Littleton did not confess to Baker, and the investigation went back into neutral for another five years.

Finally, in 1998 prosecutor Jonathan Benedict successfully sought the appointment of a one-judge grand jury to issue subpoenas and take testimony from 53 witnesses. Many of the witnesses were former residents and staff at Elan, a reform school for troubled teenagers in Maine.

Michael Skakel was 17 years old when he was forced by his family to attend Elan. Prosecutors contended that Skakel was sent there to hide from investigators on the Moxley case, but Skakel insists he was enrolled at Elan because he developed a drinking problem following the death of his mother from cancer in 1973.

Two Elan witnesses, John Higgins and Gregory Coleman, claimed that Skakel confessed to killing Martha with a golf club. Higgins testified during the trial. Coleman, however, died of a heroin overdose last year and jurors had to settle for a transcript of his pretrial testimony.

Coleman, who was 39 when he died, testified then that, after Coleman mentioned that Skakel seemed to be treated differently at Elan, Skakel responded, "I am going to get away with murder. I am a Kennedy."

Prosecutors called nearly 40 witnesses for its largely circumstantial case against Skakel. The defense called 15 witnesses, including several relatives of the defendant who placed him across town at about the time that police long believed that the murder was committed.

The defense based its case largely on an alibi for Skakel, who claimed to be across town at his cousin's house during the time a medical examiner hired by police estimated Martha was killed. The cousin, James Dowdle, testified that Skakel was with him at his home watching the premiere of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and hanging out until about 10:50. Forensic pathologist Joseph Jachimczyk testified that Martha was probably killed at about 10 p.m., but he conceded he could be off by much as an hour.

Skakel's alibi was damaged, however, by his own words and those of other witnesses. Skakel's own sister Julie offered conflicting accounts of when Skakel had left his own home to drive to his cousin's, and prosecutors contended that Martha could have been killed much later than the coroner's estimate.

Skakel did not testify himself but jurors heard a 1997 tape recording he made in anticipation of writing a book about his life as a cousin of the Kennedys. On the tape, Skakel placed himself at the crime scene on the night of the murder. He said he was masturbating in a tree outside Martha Moxley's bedroom window.

Prosecutors argued that Skakel probably did masturbate near Martha's body after he killed her. Skakel likely began telling people the bizarre story about climbing a tree and masturbating in an effort to explain any genetic identification of him as the killer once the science really came into its own in the early 1990s.

Police never found the handle of the murder weapon, but they believe that if the handle had been found, the grip would have shown that the club belonged to Skakel's mother.

Jurors apparently accepted the prosecution's theory that Michael Skakel snapped during a night of drinking and killed Martha because he became enraged that she was showing more interest in his brother, Thomas.

Crime scene evidence indicated that Martha was initially struck with a golf club near her own driveway but somehow staggered a short distance before more blows were delivered. Her body was then dragged through the grass  both face up and face down at times  until it was finally placed beneath the low-hanging branches of a pine tree.

"Justice can take a long time sometimes, but it's certainly worth the effort," said prosecutor Benedict after the verdict. "It's really worth going for."

After the verdict

Speaking outside the courthouse, Skakel's lawyer said he still believes strongly in his client's innocence and plans to continue the case. "As long as there is a breath in my body this case is not over," Sherman said.

Skakel's brother David also maintained his brother's innocence and vowed to stand by him. "For us this trial has felt like a witch hunt. Our family remains more resolute than ever."

A court officer said later that Skakel, waiting inside the courthouse, was composed, but sweating profusely shortly after the verdict. He did not speak, the officer said, other than to ask permission to give his neck tie to one of his brothers.

Word that a verdict had been reached filtered out quickly throughout downtown Norwalk. A number of students from a bartending school located in a strip mall across the street from the courthouse joined a group of about 50 non-media spectators to listen to press conferences.

One of them, 21-year-old Chris Cladis, of Darien, Conn., said he was sure Skakel was guilty but was not as sure that he'd be convicted. "I was glad to see he was guilty. It seems like wealthy people are getting off," Cladis said. "I think this is a good thing. It was pretty clear that he was guilty, but I thought he was going to get away with it."

Standing behind a row of media tents that obscured their view of a live press conference by the prosecution team, authors Dominick Dunne and Timothy Dumas embraced each other and the verdict. "I can't believe it. I can't believe it," said Dunne, author of "A Season in Purgatory," a novel that used made-up names and a baseball bat instead of a golf club to tell the story of the Skakels and the Moxleys.

"I'm not jumping up and down with happiness that Michael was put in shackles in front of everyone," Dunne said. "My happiness is for Dorthy Moxley, the exceptional and wonderful woman who I have so much respect and admiration for. She has kept this alive."

Dumas' nonfiction book, "Greentown," was published just months before prosecutors empanelled a one-judge grand jury in 1998. The former Greenwich newspaper reporter said he believed that the second half of Benedict's closing argument on Monday brought the conviction despite the absence of physical evidence and the passage of 26 years. On Thursday, the jury had requested to rehear that portion of Benedict's closing, although Judge John Kavanewsky denied the request.

"There seemed to be a growing sense among everyone in the courtroom that this was going to come back guilty. It was a sensory thing," Dumas said. "If you take the closing away from the prosecution, there's no way there is a conviction. It was just absolutely good." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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