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Jury Reaches Verdict in Kennedy Cousin Trial

Aired June 7, 2002 - 10:53   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Showing you a live picture of the courthouse in Norwalk, Connecticut. Inside the jury in the Michael Skakel murder trial, they have reached a verdict, and we understand we are going to learn that verdict within the hour. This, of course, goes back to 1975 and the murder of then-15-year-old Martha Moxley. She was beaten to death with a golf club outside her home in Greenwich, Connecticut. It was the night before Halloween in 1975. That golf club matched a set that was owned by the Skakels, although the monogrammed handle has never been found.

And all these years later, Michael Skakel finally being charged as an adult in this murder case. He's now 41 years old. If he is convicted, he could be sentenced to 10 years to life in prison. The jury, by the way has had this case for about three days and over the three days they have been asking the judge for different evidence that they wanted to go back and look over, different testimony. We are working on getting our Michael Toobin, our legal analyst to the set to help us look at some of that different evidence.

But as we said, this case getting a lot of attention. One, because Michael Skakel, a Kennedy cousin. He is the nephew of Ethel Skakel, Kennedy, who is the widow of Senator Robert Kennedy, and in this upscale community in Connecticut, where at the time,. a lot of people accused the police at the time of just letting this case go by the wayside. And some people connecting that to perhaps some political power by the Kennedy and Skakel family.

All right, our Jeffrey Toobin, our legal analyst is standing by in New York City. He's been following the case. Jeffrey, Friday, the just has had this three days. This is about the time frame the prosecutor was predicting that the jury would come back. Are you surprised about the length this jury held this case?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, this is pretty average, I would say, for a trial that went for almost five weeks. Three-plus days is really not a lot of time. Remember, also, the end of the day yesterday, or actually midday yesterday, the jury asked for instructions to be repeated about guilt or innocence after asking for several bits of testimony to be repeated to them.

KAGAN: Jeff, let me just kind of interrupt you here. Let's look at what the jury has asked for over the last three days kind of like the whole list. They asked for the testimony of number of prosecution witnesses. TOOBIN: Right. And, in fact, what they asked for is very interesting, very specific parts of the trial they seem to be focused on. One of the big issues in the case, was did Michael Skakel have an alibi for the time of the murder, which was approximately 10:00 on the night of October 30th 1975? And there were two sets of witnesses about the alibi. There were several family members who said that Skakel was at his cousin's house on the other side of town in Greenwich, and there were other witnesses, including his sister, and a neighbor, Andrea Shakespeare Renna, who said that they thought -- or suggested, it was in dispute, that Skakel might have been nearer -- might have been still at home, where the murder took place.

Interestingly, the jury asked only to hear the witnesses who gave more or less the prosecution version, the pro Andrea Renna, his sister, Julie Skakel. Those witnesses are the one the jury wanted to hear. So you could argue that they were at least taking seriously the prosecution's argument that Skakel never went to cousin's house, was in fact at home during the murder.

KAGAN: Speaking of the prosecution, the jury also asked to hear parts of the prosecutions' closing arguments, and the judge said, no, he denied that request, saying no, that's not part of the evidence.

TOOBIN: Right, that's actually a fairly common request by jurors, and judges differ on whether they allow that to be heard, because some judges, like Judge Kavanewsky say, the argument is not evidence, so I am not going to allow that to be repeated to the jury. Other judges say, well, it's OK for the jury to hear it once, it's OK for them to hear it a second time. Judge Kavanewsky said, no, he did not allow that to be repeated, which is not all that unusual, but I think it is interesting that the jury wanted to hear that. It was a really an excellent closing argument by the prosecutor Jonathan Benedict.

KAGAN: Right, you were very taken by it.

TOOBIN: I really was. One of the things we've been talking about, Daryn, since the beginning of this case, is what a difficult case it's been for the prosecution. I mean, first of all, it's just so old. I know you've been talking about the problems with the case, that it's old, that there's no eyewitnesses, there's no physical evidence. And so those problems were apparent from the beginning. But what Jonathan Benedict did in his summation was pull all the disparate evidence into a very impressive narrative.

The problems are still there. I don't think he solved all the problems in case. But it certainly is startling to someone who followed the case as I did, to sit in the courtroom and listen, as he pulled those bits and pieces together, and the jury obviously was taken enough with it to want to hear part of it again.

KAGAN: And the jury also wanted to hear part of the judge's instructions again, as well.

TOOBIN: Right, and that is totally permissible, and that was done, as I understand it, and the part they wanted to hear was the part jurors almost always want to hear, which is, what does it mean to be guilty or not guilty. What is the definition of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt?" Those are questions that all of us in the legal system struggle with. I mean, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a concept that is not easy to explain or understand, and the jury wanted some more instruction on that, and it also indicate that they were very close to a verdict, which they now appear to have reached.

KAGAN: All right, let me lay all those tea leaves on the table there before you. Given what the jury asked to see and hear again, anything you can read into that?

TOOBIN: You know, Daryn, I wish I could, you know, play that game, but I don't know. I mean, you never -- the thing about jury notes is you never know whether it's all the jurors unanimously wanting to hear something or it's just one juror who needs to be convinced of something. It's really very hard to know. You know, three-plus days of deliberation I would say is about an average length for a trial of this length and complexity.

I think it's also worth noting that it's Friday. Jurors almost often reach verdicts right before weekend. No one wants this sort of thing hanging over their head for a weekend. So but does a deliberation of this length mean that they're more likely to find guilty or not guilty? I'm afraid I'm going to have to take a pass on that one.

KAGAN: All right, well, we're not going to let you off quite easy.

We want to let our viewers who are joining us just now, because it is the top of the hour. If you are just joining us, our breaking news concerns the trial out of Norwalk, Connecticut.

Michael Skakel the Kennedy cousin on trial for murder for a murder that took place back in 1975. The jury in this case has reached a verdict. And we expect that verdict to be read sometime within the next hour. And we are awaiting the verdict with legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, who spent much of the trial in the courtroom. What about the make-up of this jury?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, what was so striking to me in looking at the jury, is this is a very suburban jury. The trial takes place in Norwalk in Fairfield County, which is known as one of the most wealthy areas in the entire United States. It includes some poorer areas as well, but it includes communities like Greenwich and New Canaan, which are really extremely wealthy.

Just by the luck of the draw, this jury includes lots of women wearing pearls and sweater sets and men wearing golf clothes, and there's a corporate lawyer on this jury. They're not all wealthy, but I was struck by how much they looked sort of like a stereotype of Greenwich. It's an all-white jury. And, again, southern Fairfield County, which is where Greenwich is, is a very white community and this is all-white jury. It's highly-educated jury by most standards. There's several with college degrees and several people with graduate degrees. And so again, I can't really predict which way that cuts, whether a highly-educated jury favors one side or another. Certainly the way the jurors went about their deliberation in a very systematic way suggests that they're a bunch of smart people who seem to doing their job in a responsible way.

KAGAN: We will have you stand by. Deborah Feyerick, who has been covering the trial and story long before this came to trial is standing by in Norwalk, Connecticut, with the latest. Deb, good morning.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, I can tell you the tension in the courtroom was extraordinary. About 10:45 a note was passed to the lawyers, the lawyers went back into chambers to speak to the judge and when Mickey Sherman, Skakel's lawyer came out, he patted him on the shoulder. There was a clear indication that, in fact the jury had returned a verdict. Now Michael Skakel was standing up in the courtroom. He was swaying back and forth before the judge had come in, before the jury came in. And at one point he sat at his table and it almost looked like he was bowing his head and praying. I spoke to Mrs. Moxley in the courtroom, and said she's been crying all morning just waiting in anticipation of this verdict. Her son John Moxley, Martha Moxley's brother, said basically that ...

DARYN: Deborah, I'm going to break in. We're hearing that the verdict is guilty. That Michael Skakel ...

FEYERICK: I'm sorry, Daryn ...

DARYN: I'm hearing; I'm being told there's a guilty verdict for Michael Skakel?

FEYERICK: Daryn, it is a guilty verdict, then, for Michael Skakel. They had never anticipated this from the very beginning. His lawyer has maintained his innocence to Michael Skakel who truly said all along that he did not kill Martha Moxley. This has got to be shattering blow. It mean he faces 25 years to life in prison. The Moxley family has always said this was not about vengeance; this was about justice. They wanted the person who killed their 15-year-old, their beloved 15-year-old girl, brought to justice. She was brutally beaten to death with a golf club and then stabbed through the neck. Whether the jury considered that when determining whether there was intent, that may be part of it. We hope to hear from the jurors later on.

The jury has been deliberating since Tuesday. It took them three full days to reach their verdict, announcing it to the judge early this morning. This had to be a unanimous decision among all the jurors. We did hear that at one point in the deliberation room the jury got very heated, that people could overhear some shouting going on. They wanted to hear from people who said that Michael Skakel never went to cousin's house as he said he did at the time Martha Moxley was killed. They also wanted to hear direct evidence, and they heard a read-back from Dr. Henry Lee, the forensic scientist. He said, no there was no direct evidence linking Michael Skakel, but there was indirect evidence linking him to this crime. The third they wanted down was motive. They wanted to hear testimony from somebody who said that Michael Skakel had a big crush on Martha and this was a crush that appeared to have been unrequited. It was the same witness that testified as to Michael Skakel's actual physical strength, saying he was the best athlete in the neighborhood. He was agile. He was coordinated. And that he was also extremely strong.

A guilty verdict for Michael Skakel in the murder of Martha Moxley, this happening some 27 years ago, Daryn. And we're hoping to get some reaction in a bit. He will now serve 25 years to life. His lawyer said that if it was a guilty verdict, that he would be appealing. Mickey Sherman said there was no way to prepare client for any sort of a guilty verdict. Michael Skakel knew what the stakes were when he went into this trial. Now it is a guilty verdict. Mickey Sherman is going to appeal. Daryn?

DARYN: Incredible. the news from Norwalk, Connecticut. Deborah Feyerick outside the courtroom. Michael Skakel, a Kennedy cousin, has been found guilty of the murder of Martha Moxley almost 27 years after this young teenager was murdered outside of her own home. Let's bring back our legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. Jeff, in the legal world, it's stunning to get a murder conviction a quarter century after a murder takes place. It also means that the jury rejected Mickey Sherman's argument and his suggestion that there were a lot of people who could have killed Martha Moxley on that night in October of 1975.

TOOBIN: Boy, Daryn, you had to -- I'm glad I'm sitting up now. You had to scrape me off the floor when this started. I am very surprised. I think this was a tough case for the prosecution. And, boy, I've seen a lot of trials. I've participated in a lot of trial, Daryn, and I have never seen a trial that was more clearly won in closing argument than this one. This was a ...

DARYN: You said it was in those closing arguments that you felt the prosecutor tied the whole thing together, because to be frank, there were a bunch of pieces to tie together, but there was never a smoking gun. There were questions of the alibi, there was a potential motive, but there was never a clean picture, as you were saying, until the closing arguments three days ago.

TOOBIN: In that courtroom, during Jonathan Benedict's summation, he did something utterly brilliant. What he did was he took the audiotape of Michael Skakel's interview with the ghost writer for the book he was planning on writing, describing the night of the murder. He played that tape.

So Michael Skakel's voice echoed through the courtroom for the only time, and what he did was he played parts of the tape and put up a transcript. And he showed how Michael Skakel lied about his behavior on the night of the murder. And he showed how each witness refuted Michael Skakel, and he put up that transcript and he played those tapes and put up the photographs of Martha Moxley's dead body, and it was utterly chilling and riveting and unforgettable, and that was the part of the summation that the jury wanted to hear again.

DARYN: And the judge said no.

TOOBIN: The judge said no. But they obviously remembered what he was talking about. And found him guilty and this is a stunning victory, for the prosecutors in this office, for the cops who worked so hard and so long for this.

DARYN: And especially, let me say, for the Moxley family, who refused to let the cause of Martha Moxley die.

TOOBIN: And I have to tell you, it's a victory for someone else that a lot of people don't like. But this is a tremendous victory for Mark Forman, the disgraced ...

DARYN: I want to get that point in a just a moment. But first I want to bring back in Deborah Feyerick, who is at the courthouse and has more information from inside. Deborah?

FEYERICK: We want to tell you about the reaction. Mrs. Moxley and John Moxley, the victim's brother, were both crying in court. John Moxley was convinced that today was the day of the verdict, that today would be the day Michael Skakel would be found guilty. In fact, that's exactly what came to pass. As for Michael Skakel, he stood frozen in that courtroom after the verdict was read. Again, as I mentioned earlier, the tension in there was extraordinary. Three days of deliberation with the jury coming back with their decision today.

I want to mention -- I want to elaborate on something Jeff said. This is about the closing argument and the book proposal. Prosecutors did something that was very interesting. The part about Michael Skakel actually almost confirming that he had not gone to his cousin's house, was a piece of testimony, Daryn, that was almost slipped in. Nobody paid any attention to that. And one of the prosecutors had told us they were almost holding their breath, hoping -- hoping that no one on the defense side would see what they were doing. That as presenting it as sort of a book proposal as to Michael describing what he said that night. They were hoping that it would be Michael's own words that were slipped in.

Very, obviously, legally but in a way that didn't call any attention to it. That would ultimately convict Michael Skakel, because it is Michael Skakel's words, who said, I remember, Julie's friend had gone home. That is critical. The only way he could have known that is if he did not go to the cousin's house and if he stayed here. Twenty-five years to life he is now facing for a murder that is 27 years old. He has young son, a 4-year-old son, and clearly this has to be personally devastating to him, but for the Moxley family, there is a sense that after so long their beloved daughter's murder has been brought to justice.

DARYN: We're showing two things on the screen right now. You can see you and I talking and also there's a van pulling to the courtroom -- to the courthouse.

FEYERICK: That van. -- exactly. That van, Daryn, that van -- what we are expecting right now, as you can see the two doors behind that van, those are the two doors that Michael Skakel is expected to be walked out of in handcuffs as he is brought and then processed into the prison system here. So again you can see that the marshals are there. They are keeping a very tight eye on all of what is going on. A number of state troopers here also in order to provide some additional security. The two doors there, those are the doors that Michael Skakel is expected to walk out of. Certainly after he is processed and then brought to prison.

DARYN: We are getting word he already is in handcuffs inside the courtroom, and that the defense is going to ask for bail. But it looks like they're making a preparation right now to keep him in custody. Deb, let me ask you this: you mention the Moxley family that was in court. Were there any Skakel family members to support Michael Skakel today?

FEYERICK: There were. Some of the younger brothers were in court. As a matter of fact, one of the younger brothers said to John Moxley, the victim's brother, he said the Skakel family's thoughts are with you. Again, they fully believed in Michael's innocence, but they wanted to sort of extend their hand to John Moxley. Because clearly, the tragedy of Martha's death, just both families have suffered extraordinarily. So again, Michael Skakel right now is going to be serving 25 years to life, although his lawyer is planning on appealing and he has been also thinking during the course of the trial what could be possible grounds for appeal and there are a couple that do exist. So ...

DARYN: What are those?

FEYERICK: For example, there was one question about a juror who had seen Michael Skakel make a comment after one of the witnesses testified. The particular witness who was on the stand was his cousin, Jimmy, and apparently he was backing up the alibi that Michael was at the house at the time that Martha was murdered, and that they were watching Monty Python's Flying Circus. But after the cousin testified, Michael Skakel said good job. And apparently, one of the jurors saw that and as he was exiting the court he said, did you see Michael Skakel say, "Good job?" And another juror, an alternate juror, heard this and thought it was inappropriate, because you're not supposed to talk about anything about this case until you reach the deliberation room. And she pointed that out to the judge.

So perhaps that's one of the grounds, that one of the jurors was already prejudiced. There's also an issue of the judge's instructions. Mickey Sherman, Michael Skakel's lawyer, was very upset about some of the judge's instructions, because he used specific examples. He said, consider the testimony of Gregory Coleman, one of the witnesses who'd heard a confession. Consider the testimony of John Higgins, who heard a confession, and but also consider the testimony of people who didn't hear the confession. But on some level there was some surprise among the people in court who aren't lawyers that you would give such specifics over a jury instruction. So right now court has adjourned.

DARYN: Deb, looking at this picture. We're looking at a picture now that's on the other side of the courthouse. As you mention, court has adjourned and we do expect Michael Skakel to be coming out of the double door any minute. Also the Moxley family coming out the front side of the courthouse. We look forward to hearing comments from them as well. Deb, where will they take Michael Skakel from here? FEYERICK: They will take him to a local prison here; we're not exactly sure which one. Even the prosecutors weren't exactly clear on where they might take him after he was found guilty. As a matter of fact, Daryn, until last week the prosecutors weren't even sure what the exact sentence would be. There were some indication that maybe it was ten years to life. But ultimately, as late as last Thursday the prosecutor finally got word that if found guilty it would be 25 years to life.

DARYN: Incredible.

FEYERICK: Things still are kind of being pieced together as it happens.

DARYN: Okay, Deb, I want you to stay with us. We will stay on this picture here looking for Michael Skakel to come out of the courthouse and for the Moxley family to come out. I want to bring out Jeffrey Toobin from New York. And Jeff, another reminder about this case. There are so many incredible aspects, leaving aside the Kennedy connection. The course that this took overtime, over 26 years, and how when this first came about within the last couple of years this was going to be tried in juvenile court. And even if he had been found guilty, that would have a been different outcome for Michael Skakel.

TOOBIN: And that will certainly be a major ground for appeal. One of the many grounds for appeal. I don't know if it will be successful. But certainly there will be a lot of legal issues coming out of this case. And just to refresh peoples' memory, Michael Skakel was 15 years old when this murder took place. When -- now we can say -- he killed Martha Moxley. If he had been arrested at that point, he would have been tried as a juvenile. Well, of course, it took more than 25 years for him to be arrested. So the legal question become, can you try a 41-year-old man in juvenile court?

DARYN: And just the image seemed absurd at the time.

TOOBIN: It does seem absurd, and ultimately the Connecticut courts, after extensive investigation of that, including pre-trial appeals, said no, you can't try a middle-aged man as a juvenile. So he should be tried as an adult. That's why we were in Superior Court in Norwalk. But, the question does remain: -- not his age when trial took place, but his age when the crime was committed. So that issue will be litigated through the courts again. Since it was appealed pre-trial I can't imagine -- who knows what you can imagine in a case that's had as many twist and turns as this one. But it seems an unlikely ground for success on appeal, since it's already, in effect, been appealed before trial. But certainly that was a major issue, delaying this case for a long time.

DARYN: What about the other point that Deborah Feyerick making about a potential appeal on the judge's instructions, that they were so specific?

TOOBIN: That is a matter of individual preference among judges. There are often judges who give tailored charges to the evidence. I think it is unusual now. I don't think it's going to be grounds for a successful appeal, although it will certainly be raised. I think Deborah makes a good point about this exchange involving a juror, the juror who made a comment about Skakel's interaction with one of the witnesses. The juror made a comment, did you see what he said to another juror? That will certainly be ground for appeal. There was another moment in the trial, a legal ruling by Judge Kavanewsky, that will be grounds for an appeal.

DARYN: What's that?

TOOBIN: When one of the family friends testified, she testified that Michael Skakel's father told her that Michael Skakel had told him that he wasn't sure really what happened that night. And suggested that he sort of confessed to her father. So it was kind of a double layer of hearsay. Michael told his father, who told the witness, who testified in court. And Mickey Sherman objected very strongly to that on the grounds that it was inadmissible hearsay. But Judge Kavanewsky admitted it. That will be another ground for appeal.

I think one thing to keep in mind when you talk about appeals is the vast, vast majority of convictions are upheld on appeal. And Judge Kavanewsky is a respected judge. These are individual points that may be raised, but I think you have to say the odds favor an affirmance in this case. The odds favor that the appeals court will let this stand. This was a fair trial, I think it's safe to say. Michael Skakel was represented by an extremely aggressive, intelligent, successful defense attorney named Mickey Sherman, and I think an appeals court will probably say, you can argue about these small rulings along the way, but this was a fair trial.

DARYN: You can nit-pick, but being of the stature he is in society, he had the best legal defense money could buy.

TOOBIN: He really did.

DARYN: Jeff, you stay with us. Deb Feyerick, you're there at the courthouse in Norwalk in Connecticut. You have more from inside the courtroom.




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