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If prosecutors get their way, DNA evidence that could free Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel, 42, might never see the light of day. That’s because prosecutors are convinced jurors got it right last year when they convicted Skakel for the murder of Martha Moxley, 15, who was brutally beaten to death and stabbed with the shaft of a golf club in a secluded area of the wealthy community of Greenwich, Conn., during the evening of Oct. 30, 1975.
Skakel, now serving 20 years to life in prison for Moxley’s murder, is a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, the widow of former U.S. attorney general and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Prosecutors argued Skakel, then 15, killed Moxley in a fit of jealousy because she preferred his brother Tom. Their strongest evidence consisted of a statement from Gregory Coleman, a heroin addict who claimed he once heard Skakel confess to the killing.
Even though Coleman died of an overdose before the trial, the court allowed a transcript of his 1998 grand-jury testimony to be read into the record. He had told the grand jury that Skakel confessed to the killing again and again. But Coleman was never cross-examined and admitted he had shot up with heroin an hour before his testimony.
The next most damaging piece of evidence consisted of Skakel’s own words from a 1998 taped interview with a ghostwriter – hardly a likely means of confession. But prosecutors took these words out of context and had them superimposed over a grisly crime-scene photo of the victim displayed to inflame the jurors, of which one was a policeman and another a friend of a friend of the Moxleys. Skakel had been asked on the tape how he was feeling the morning after the incident. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, did they see me last night?'” he says on the tape. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ And I remember just having a feeling of panic, like ‘Oh s—!’ you know, like my worry of what I went to bed with. I don’t know. You know what I mean? I had a feeling of panic.”
Incriminating? It was made by the prosecutors to seem so because Skakel had not testified. Because of this the jury could not put any of that in context. In fact, according to several witnesses, Skakel had been worried that Martha’s mother, Dorothy, had seen him masturbating on a tree outside the Moxley’s residence on the night of the murder. The prosecutors later would claim Skakel’s masturbation story was an attempt to protect himself in case DNA linked him to the crime scene.
But what the jury never learned is that Skakel had told this story numerous times during the two decades before DNA testing was available. In fact, when Skakel offered during the renewed investigation to submit to DNA testing, prosecutors rejected the request claiming to have lost the vaginal swabs taken from Moxley, who was found with her pants pulled down to her knees.
Today, these same prosecutors insist Skakel should be in prison, and never mind that they produced no fingerprints, no DNA evidence and no eyewitness to put the golf club in the hands of the adolescent boy a quarter of a century before. While Skakel repeatedly has proclaimed his innocence, the victim’s mother never wavered in her belief that it was he who killed Martha.
But could they be wrong?
Skakel neighbors say golf clubs always were scattered on the lawns of the family estate and that anyone could have picked one up.
And DNA evidence might once and for all remove any doubt. That proof may be available in what Skakel’s defense team claims is new evidence provided by one Gitano Pierre “Tony” Bryant – a cousin of troubled Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant and classmate of Skakel at the private Brunswick School in Greenwich. Bryant used to hang out with Brunswick teens at Belle Haven, the gated Greenwich community where Moxley was killed. According to Bryant, two Bronx men – one white and one black – confessed to the grisly crime. On the night of the murder, Bryant repeatedly has claimed, the two men bragged to him about their intention to attack a girl “caveman style,” dragging her to an isolated place to have their way with her.
Bryant says he wanted no part of anything like that and returned home on the night in question. But the next day Bryant met up with the young men and details they provided made their “caveman” boast more convincing. He claimed the men told him they had stolen a golf club from the Skakel lawn before proceeding to Moxley’s residence.
Warned by his mother that he might be implicated, Bryant never went to the police with his story. But nearly three years ago he confided this information he had kept secret for a quarter of a century to two former classmates, Crawford Mills and Neal Walker, on the condition that his name never be revealed.
The secret exploded when Mills read an account of the case by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the January 2003 issue of Atlantic Monthly. Mills decided to call the son of the slain senator with news that cast the shadow of doubt across the case, hoping that prosecutors or a court could force these men to undergo tests in which their DNA could be compared to that extracted from hairs left at the scene.
But prosecutors didn’t take kindly to the firestorm of criticism that resulted from what Kennedy had to say in his January article, titled “A Miscarriage of Justice.” In a carefully reasoned piece, the former New York prosecutor didn’t mince words. He says the Skakels were not helped by Kennedy money, and that in fact they are hard-core Republicans. He says Skakel had blamed the Kennedy family for what he regarded as a political prosecution. He even refused to speak to his cousin, which begs the question why Kennedy got involved.
Robert explains it this way in his article: “Many people asked me why I would publicly defend him – a cause unlikely to enhance my own credibility. I support him not out of misguided family loyalty but because I am certain he is innocent.”
In the article Kennedy charges prosecutorial misconduct and levies harsh criticisms against Skakel’s trial attorney, Mickey Sherman. He blames cop-author Mark Fuhrman and crime writer Dominick Dunne for leading an alleged witch-hunt to put his cousin in jail. He even quotes an Insight investigative story on the case that depicted how strangely cooperative the Skakels were in these matters. Kennedy wrote, “The tragedy of Martha Moxley’s death 27 years ago has been compounded by the conviction of an innocent man,” and he tells Insight he believes every word of it.
Kennedy’s article once again brought out Fuhrman and Dunne, both of whom had profited handsomely from books about the murder. While the two blasted the earnest Kennedy, a major break in the case surfaced unexpectedly.
“Crawford Mills read my piece in the Atlantic,” Kennedy remembers. “I called him and he told me the story. I then called Tony Bryant. He went through the whole story and then I tracked down the two gentlemen.” Kennedy quickly provided transcripts of his conversations to Skakel’s attorneys, who asked private investigator Vito Colucci to conduct videotaped interviews with Bryant and the potential new suspects.
“I believe Bryant,” Kennedy says without hesitation.
Skakel’s private investigator confirms to Insight that the two men had problems accounting for their whereabouts on the night of the murder.
“One of them first claimed he had never been to Greenwich but then changed his story,” Colucci says. “They kept changing their stories throughout the interview.”
Neither of the two men accused by Bryant could be reached for comment. Sources say neither has a criminal record. The Hartford Courant claims the black man has denied committing the crime. Insight has learned he acknowledged in an interview with the defense team that he is worried about taking a lie-detector test.
“I will probably flunk it,” he says, apparently because he is very nervous about what he did that particular night. The white man has yet to comment.
Skeptics have suggested that any black man visiting the wealthy Greenwich enclave in 1975 would have raised eyebrows in a community where less than a half-dozen blacks resided. Fuhrman, the former Los Angeles Police Department detective who pleaded nolo contendere to perjury committed during the O.J. Simpson trial and whose book pins the murder on Skakel, recently told Fox News that he is very skeptical of Bryant’s story.
“Michael Skakel, yes, he’s guilty, but he was also a victim of his own family trying to cover this up because of the Skakel and Kennedy name,” Fuhrman claimed.
But Fox News reported that Skakel neighbors placed Bryant and his friends in the area around the time of the murder – and some of the neighbors claimed the investigators should have looked at Bryant and the others for information. A hair that came from an African-American was found on a blanket covering the victim’s body, but apparently at the time (prior to DNA testing) was assumed just to have come from a police officer on the scene of the crime. It was never tested. Another strand of hair was analyzed by forensic expert Henry Lee, who claimed it came from someone of Asian descent. It is not known if either of the two men were of Asian descent. A third hair apparently was destroyed during analysis.
“Yes, the caveman theory fits the attack,” says independent criminal profiler John Philpin, a retired forensic psychologist who has been routinely sought out by law-enforcement authorities and has studied the case.
“I never believed Skakel committed this crime. Oh, God, no. I never did – not from day one,” he tells Insight. “The killer was overcome with rage; perhaps a slight acquaintance. And there is a sexual aspect to the crime. The killer definitely had fantasies. The killer is listening to somebody inside his head – a sort of vengeance where he is thinking about girls. He has a different kind of personality and you will see subsequent behavior. He knows what he did is wrong and is bad. It might be a religious thing or might be evil and he may have a problem with substances.”
Kennedy declined to talk about specifics of the case but insists that based on what he has learned he is more certain than ever that Skakel is innocent. He said he visited his cousin in prison in the summer. “He’s doing OK,” he reports. Skakel’s attorney Hope Seeley declined to be interviewed about the case and has asked her defense team to withhold comment while they continue to investigate. Seeley has filed the first appeal, arguing the court erred in numerous rulings, and is expected to file a second appeal contending the trial attorney was incompetent, at which time the new evidence might be entered into testimony.
The latest developments in this story exploded at a time when prosecutors were ready to divide reward money in the case during a court hearing. They asked trial judge John F. Kavanewsky Jr. to approve the disbursement of $20,000 to two prosecution witnesses and the widow of a third witness. Seeley objected to the payment, claiming it would taint Skakel’s right to a fair trial that she expected to be granted once her new evidence was put forward. At the time she did not specify or detail the Bryant account.
When the Hartford Courant broke the story about the new evidence, Fairfield State’s Attorney Jonathan Benedict fired back in a sharply worded statement that dismissed the credibility of the information and claimed this so-called “new evidence” had been provided to the defense team one month after Skakel was convicted and before he was sentenced last August, which Skakel’s attorneys vehemently deny.
But what Benedict may or may not have known is extremely troubling to some, especially since he never bothered to interview the two men Skakel’s defense team now believe killed Moxley. In fact, Benedict remains frustrated that the defense team refused to provide him with their names and locations. Reporters have been able to track down and interview both men and yet prosecutors apparently have no clue as to how to locate them.
Why won’t Skakel’s team turn over the two potential suspects? For now, his lawyers aren’t talking about that, but legal experts say the reason is obvious. Brian Tannebaum, a Florida criminal-defense lawyer who represents Gerilyn Graham, former caretaker of missing Florida foster child Rilya Wilson, and who is legal consultant for the prime-time TV show CSI: Miami, says of the Skakel team’s reluctance, “This sends a signal to me that they do not trust prosecutors in the case. After all, they are not on a level playing field.”
The failure of defense attorneys to trust these prosecutors may result from the fact that police and prosecutors have lost, hidden or destroyed critical evidence – including hair samples, vaginal swabs, clothing and part of the golf club that was believed to be lodged in the victim’s neck.
Benedict even claims that Mills provided the Bryant story to Skakel’s trial attorney, Mickey Sherman, who disregarded it apparently because Mills had been working on a script about the murder and there appeared to be some question of whether the story was fictional. Sherman is not talking about the case because Skakel’s new attorneys expect to file another appeal charging Sherman with incompetence.
Detective Colucci, who did some initial work on the case for the trial team, tells Insight, “We never had that information.” He insists the trial team definitely would have pursued it if they had known about it.
Meanwhile the current defense attorneys are continuing to investigate and corroborate the new evidence as prosecutors attempt to discredit Bryant’s account of what happened the night Moxley was murdered. Benedict insists the story will fall apart once it gets to court, but the defense stands firm in its belief that their client is innocent and new evidence will clear him.
While a DNA test might quickly settle the matter, legal experts expect it will take years before prosecutors are forced to allow the tests or agree to do so in the interest of justice.
“Prosecutors tend to be reluctant to do DNA testing [when] they have a conviction,” Tannebaum says.
But the question in this case might be, “Can a Kennedy get a fair trial?” Ask Robert Kennedy Jr. and he hesitates. “You tell me,” he says.
Timothy W. Maier is a writer for Insight.