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Moxley Case: Trial gets under way

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Editor's Note: As part of's new Crime section, we are archiving some of the most interesting content from This story was first published in 2001.

(Court TV) -- A nephew of Ethel Kennedy killed a teenaged neighbor in 1975 and fooled the police for years but eventually could no longer "keep a lid on it" and began telling people, a prosecutor charged Tuesday as Michael Skakel's murder trial opened amid great fanfare.

Skakel, now 41, ignored a phalanx of cameras, microphones and network reporters as he arrived at court to face charges in the 1975 beating of Martha Moxley in the affluent Greenwich, Conn., enclave of Belle Haven. He was not in his seat for 15 minutes before prosecutor Jonathan Benedict got up and told the jury that he intends to prove that Skakel killed Moxley with a golf club when both were 15 years old.

The opening statement, the part of the trial where the prosecution gets to outline its theory of the case and project what it intends to prove, was much anticipated. Everyone in Judge John Kavanewsky's packed courtroom who thought they knew a lot about the case was anxious to hear if there were any surprises left that had not already made it into print.

There were no surprises. There was also no mention of lost evidence or the existence of three other suspects before Michael Skakel.

'Everlasting nightmare'

Sounding very much like the opening chapter of two non-fiction books written about the murder, Benedict instead focused on telling the jury about the last night of Martha's life, Oct. 30, 1975, and how Skakel allegedly admitted three years later to classmates at a Maine private school that he had killed his friend and neighbor.

"Mischief Night," Benedict said, using a local phrase to describe the night before Halloween, "became one family's everlasting nightmare."

Benedict said evidence will show that Michael Skakel beat Martha with a golf club from his deceased mother's set "so furiously" that the head of the six-iron broke off. There will also be evidence, Benedict told the jury of six men and six women empanelled for the trial last month, that Skakel and people close to him began trying to cover up the brutal crime almost immediately.

"It resulted in investigators following the wrong trail for many years ... though the real truth lay right under their noses all along," Benedict said, reading remarks he prepared in advance.

"What happened to Martha Moxley that night? Who killed her? That's what this trial and your deliberations are all about," the 55-year-old prosecutor said.

Benedict steered clear of revealing most of his evidence but did mention the expected testimony of witnesses who say Skakel admitted to the crime while attending the Elan School in Maine in the late 1970s. Whether out of guilt, anger or panic, statements made by Skakel are direct evidence, and when combined with other evidence, is more than sufficient to convict Skakel of killing Martha, Benedict told the jury.

Skakel's lawyer, Mickey Sherman, was uncharacteristically low-key during his 10-minute opening to the panel. He began by asking jurors if they remember "Socks the cat." During jury selection, panel members said they could convict the mythical cat of knocking over a bowl of cereal if they did not witness the act but found other circumstantial evidence it occurred.

"The problem with the state's case is that there is no milk on the whiskers and Socks was not even in the neighborhood when the milk was taken," Sherman said.

Defense: Evidence is 'zilch'

The defense claims that the prosecution's own evidence shows that Martha was probably attacked about 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m. that night. The defense claims that Michael Skakel was either enroute or already at his cousin's home across town when numerous neighbors reported that dogs began barking incessantly.

Sherman asked jurors not to be overwhelmed by graphic images of Martha's battered body or by sympathy for the victim's mother, Dorthy Moxley, who sat in the first row with author and former O.J. Simpson detective Mark Fuhrman.

"You are going to see some very disturbing and large pictures," Sherman said, pointing to an elaborate multi-media setup the prosecution devised to project images from a laptop computer. "A beautiful young girl was savagely beaten to death ... What I'm asking you to do is not allow the emotional rage you feel and we all will feel to interfere with your deliberative process."

Sherman went on to characterize the prosecution's physical evidence as "zilch" and asked jurors to consider the credibility and reliability of witnesses who attended Elan with Skakel and who claim he confessed.

"The case that they have here is based loosely on a very shaky house of cards, mainly wild cards and a few jokers as well," Sherman said.

None of Skakel's Kennedy cousins were in the courtroom Tuesday but are expected to attend some of the testimony. The prosecution's first witness, Dorthy Moxley, testified for about 90 minutes Tuesday to describe her frantic overnight search for Martha and the discovery of the body on the Moxley property about 12:15 p.m. the following day.

Moxley said she remembers a knock at the door and one of her friends answering it.

"It was a girl and she was hysterical and she said, 'I think I found Martha,'" Moxley testified. "I said, 'Is she alright?' and she said, 'No, I don't think so.'"

The diary

Over defense objections, Kavanewsky allowed into evidence excerpts from Martha's diary entries for the late summer of 1975. In the diary, Martha wrote that Michael Skakel's older brother, Thomas, was making sexual overtures toward her and that Michael Skakel sometimes acted like "an asshole" when he drank alcohol.

She wrote several times about going over to the Skakel home but even questioned in one entry whether it was a good idea given the environment. It was after Michael Skakel allegedly told Martha that she was "leading on" his brother, that she insisted in her journal that she liked Thomas only as a friend.

"Michael jumps to conclusions. I can't be friends with Tom just because I talk to him, it doesn't mean I like him. I really have to stop going over there then because Michael was being such an ass," she wrote on Sept. 18, 1975. "They all started fighting because he was being such a big 'he man.'"

In a motion supporting the admissibility of the diary excerpts, prosecutor Susann Gill put her own spin on the significance of the entries. Martha was ambivalent about her feelings for Thomas Skakel but was not interested in Michael Skakel, who nonetheless liked Martha, the prosecutor contended.

"The victim's relationship with the brothers, her annoyance with Michael, and ambivalence toward Tom's advances, are relevant to motive ...," Gill wrote, articulating the prosecution's position on motive for the first-time publicly. "The state's evidence will show that the defendant has made admissions indicating his romantic interest in the victim, and has also stated that she rejected him the night she was killed ... [That] triggered the murder."

Gruesome discovery

Anticipating graphic testimony and photographs, Dorthy Moxley, Martha's brother, John, and other family members left the courtroom as the prosecution's third witness took the stand. Sheila McGuire, who now lives in Redding, Conn., testified that she was yelling out Martha's name as she cut through the Moxley property on the way to friend Holly Fuch's house to begin a search for the missing teen.

McGuire testified that she saw a "flesh-colored egg crate mattress-looking thing" beneath a large pine tree in front of her. As she got closer, McGuire said she realized the object was Martha's body.

Jurors were shown photographs of Martha's body, which was laying face down beneath the low-hanging bough of the tree, just 161 feet from her house. The photos, blown up on an overhead screen, showed Martha's jeans and panties down below her knees and a tangled mess of blood-soaked hair above her blue and yellow striped shirt. Her blue, down Parka was pushed up around her head.

Jurors were later shown autopsy photos but they were not displayed on the screen. Sherman, the defense lawyer, tried to keep some photos out of evidence, suggesting they were cumulative and intended to shock the jury and prejudice Skakel.

Prosecution witness Daniel Hickman, a Greenwich police youth officer who retired and is now a Baptist minister, testified that he and partner Millard Jones ran to the tree where Martha's body was found as soon as they arrived and saw Sheila McGuire pointing.

Hickman testified on cross-examination, as he has before, that he remembers seeing a shiny piece of metal protruding from Martha's neck. Jones gave a similar account in a newspaper interview in 1997 but no such object was logged as evidence and neither officer noted it in their official report about their observations at the crime scene.

"So what happened to the piece of metal that was in her neck?" Sherman asked Hickman.

"I have no idea, sir," Hickman said.

"As you remember that scene right now ... there was a metal rod sticking out her neck?" Sherman asked at another point.

"To the best of my knowledge, I believe I [saw that]," Hickman said.

Looking to blunt the damage of the integrity of a police investigation that has been called into question in numerous forums, Benedict pointed out that Hickman did not tell anyone about the metal object in his official capacity for more than 20 years and never wrote it down.

"If you had seen that, would that be something that would be pretty important to you?" Benedict asked.

"Yes, sir. Absolutely," Hickman said.

When court concluded Tuesday, jurors were hearing testimony from Thomas Keegan, who was the Greenwich police captain of detectives in 1975. Keegan, who was later chief of police and currently is a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, resumes his testimony at 10 a.m. Wednesday. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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