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Leonard Levitt op-ed: Lessons of a 41-year-old murder case

January 15, 2017 GMT

Here are some lessons we can draw from the latest Supreme Court decision on the Martha Moxley murder case.

l. Money talks. The case is well on its way to becoming the country’s longest legal soap opera. Convicted killer Michael Skakel’s attorney Hubert Santos has already filed a petition for “reconsideration.” Other Skakel attorneys are talking further appeals, even to the U.S. Supreme Court. Apparently, the Skakel family has deep enough pockets to pay for all this. And just think: after Michael’s conviction in 2002 family members swore at a news conference they were broke.

2. Connecticut’s Supreme Court is revealing itself as a semi-dysfunctional body. Just days after its 4-3 decision reinstating Skakel’s conviction for the 1975 murder, they are entertaining a petition for “reconsideration.” They just voted. What’s to reconsider?

Moreover, no one, least of all the court’s spokeswoman, seems to know what the “reconsideration” process consists of. Amid this confusion, no one can say when or even if Michael, who has been free on $1.2 million bail for the past three years, will return to jail, where he was serving a 20-year-to-life sentence.

3. No judge can appear toward the end of a 40-year-old case and appreciate its nuances. Let’s start with Appellate Judge Thomas Bishop, who in 2013 ruled that Michael did not receive a fair trial because his lawyer was incompetent.

Bishop appeared to have conducted his own investigation and concluded that Michael’s older brother Tommy, the last known person to see Martha alive and the case’s initial prime suspect, murdered Martha. Bishop tailored his decision to reflect that. He based his ruling in part — a ruling stridently seconded by Supreme Court Judge Richard Palmer in his 4-3 dissent — on the fact that Michael’s trial lawyer, Mickey Sherman, accused Kenneth Littleton (a tutor for Michael and Tommy) of what is known as “third party culpability.” Instead, said Bishop, Sherman should have accused Tommy.

Bishop and Palmer ignored that Littleton had plenty going against him to make him a viable “third-party culpability” candidate. Neither judge mentioned Sherman’s strongest reason: the state’s longtime chief investigator Jack Solomon considered Littleton a possible serial killer. Solomon was so convinced Littleton murdered Martha that after retiring, he testified as a defense witness for Michael. How many times in their judicial careers had Bishop or Palmer ever seen a state investigator of a murder become a defense witness for the accused?

The State Supreme Court’s panel of justice also missed nuances. In Santos’ closing oral argument, he debunked the story that Michael had masturbated in a tree outside Martha’s window, saying there wasn’t even a tree there. His inference was that prosecutors had concocted this to discredit Michael. In fact, this was what Michael claimed. Not one of the judges listening to Santos called him on it.

4. Sherman may have been cleared of incompetency but he nonetheless did a terrible job defending Michael. Beset at the time with financial problems, imagining himself to be the center of attention, appearing on television during the trial with such Kennedy enemies as the writer Dominick Dunne, he thought the trial was his ticket to fame and didn’t appear to take it seriously. He glossed over his questioning of Andrea Shakespeare, who proved to be the key witness against Michael, saying she saw him at the Skakel house after the car with his brothers departed for his cousin’s Jimmy Terrien. His summation began with the glib one-liner: “He didn’t do it.”

5. Perhaps it is better to take responsibility for one’s actions than to stonewall for the next 42 years, which is what the Skakel family continues to do. Michael, then 15, would have been tried as a juvenile back then. His mother having died when he was a child, he would have been viewed sympathetically by all, served perhaps six months in a juvenile facility, moved on with his life and been spared years of judicial and media torment.

In the early 1990s, the Skakel family had another opportunity to accept responsibility. They hired private investigators “to clear the family name,” saying that if the investigation determined a Skakel family member murdered Martha, they would take responsibility and seek medical help for him. Instead, after the investigators presented evidence that Michael and Tommy had lied to police about their whereabouts the night of the murder, the Skakels fired them.

6. Robert Kennedy’s book “Framed: Why Michael Skakel Spent Over a Decade in Prison for a Murder He Didn’t Commit” is not worth the paper it is written on. The book received plenty of media attention last summer. In it Kennedy, who is Michael’s first cousin (his mother Ethel Kennedy is Michael’s aunt) named Burton Tinsley and Adolph Hasbrouck, two men from the Bronx, N.Y., as Martha’s killers. “Using evidence I have cited in this book, prosecutors have sufficient cause to indict Burton Tinsley and Adolph Hasbrouck for Martha Moxley’s murder,” he wrote.

Kennedy produced no credible evidence to support his claims. Instead, he relied solely on the word of a convicted felon with his own unstated motives, which Kennedy (and Judge Palmer in an earlier dissent) apparently never questioned. In interviews, Kennedy has dared the two men to sue him. Unlike the Skakels, Hasbrouck said he didn’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars such a suit would cost.

7. There’s an old police saying about homicide: If a murder isn’t solved in the first 48 hours, it may never be. Alas, that’s what happened in the Moxley case. Martha was beaten to death 10 to 15 times with a golf club. But after finding a matching club to the murder weapon inside the Skakel house the day they discovered Martha’s body, the Greenwich police failed to conduct a formal search of the house or to take detailed written statements from each of the Skakel children. That’s why we’ll probably never know exactly what happened the night of Martha’s murder. Nor will we know with 100-percent certainty who killed her.

Leonard Levitt was hired by Greenwich Time and The Advocate in the early 1980s to investigate the 1975 murder of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley. His article in 1991 helped re-launch the police investigation and led to the 2000 arrest of Michael Skakel. Levitt, a Stamford resident, wrote the book “Conviction” about the case with Frank Garr, the prosecution’s head investigator.