HARTFORD, Conn. - The lawyer for Kennedy family member Michael Skakel argued to the state Supreme Court yesterday that a five-year statute of limitations in place when 15-year-old Martha Moxley was bludgeoned to death in 1975 should have barred his prosecution a quarter-century later.
"Michael Skakel should never have been charged in 2000. Michael Skakel should never have been tried and convicted in 2002, and Michael Skakel should never have been incarcerated for two-and-a-half years," Hope Seeley argued to the five-member panel. Skakel, 44, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's widow, is serving a sentence of 20 years to life.
Moxley's mother and brother were incredulous that Skakel's best argument for exoneration is what they termed "a legal loophole." Dorthy Moxley began shaking her head before the last justice left the courtroom.
"Can you believe they're saying, 'OK, you dummies, we got away with murder. It's been five years and I'm getting away with murder,'" she said.
John Moxley, who was 17 when his sister was murdered, made a play on words of the 1983 precedent that is central to Skakel's appeal - State v. Paradise.
"I think it's kind of ironic that paradise for Michael Skakel is a legal loophole," he said. "Nobody's debating his guilt. It's just 'I want to get out of jail,' and that's not right."
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Susann Gill disputed Seeley's interpretation of the case law and statutes dating to 1846.
Gill argued that a 1976 bill expressly stating there is no statute of limitations for prosecuting murder cases amounts to a "clarifying amendment" and that the legislature never intended to set a deadline for making an arrest in a murder case. Gill said the clarification was meant to be applied retroactively. Seeley countered that sentencing statutes that affect a substantive right such as one's freedom are not applied retroactively.
As a fallback position, Gill pointed out that the crime occurred in October 1975 and the clarifying amendment took effect upon passage in April 1976 - well before the five-year statute of limitations.
"This court has always said that even a strict interpretation is not going to frustrate an explicit legislative intent," Gill argued.
Seeley also argued that prosecutors withheld from the defense a composite drawing of a possible suspect, which was based on an encounter a Belle Haven security guard had with a man out walking near the time and place of the murder. Gill argued that the sketch was referred to in two police reports that were given to Skakel's former defense lawyer, Mickey Sherman, and that private investigators for the Skakel family in 1994 interviewed the security guard.
Five of Skakel's six siblings - including his older brother Thomas, who was long a suspect in the killing - and numerous other relatives filled nearly one side of the courtroom. Steven Skakel, an older brother, said after court, "We have faith in the system ... and I pray that we will prevail."
Steven Skakel said Michael is "holding up." Thomas Skakel said wistfully, "We'll just have to wait and see." Seeley also argued that an arrest warrant drafted for Thomas Skakel the year after the murder, but never served on him, also was not turned over to the defense team.
Martha Moxley was hit over the head so hard with a golf iron from a set of clubs owned by the Skakel family that the shaft shattered. She was last seen in the Skakels' driveway not far from her home about 9:30 p.m. Oct. 30, 1975, hanging around with a group of friends in the exclusive Greenwich community of Belle Haven. She is believed to have been killed between 9:30 and 10 p.m., as she crossed into her side yard. Her body was dragged beneath a large tree in her yard and discovered by a friend about noon the next day.
For more than two decades Dorthy Moxley cultivated public interest in her daughter's unsolved killing. In June 1998, prosecutors began a grand jury investigation to subpoena witnesses and reinvestigate evidence. Skakel was arrested on Jan. 19, 2000, based largely on grand jury testimony by former classmates at a small Maine school for addicted and troubled adolescents that was notorious for its use of physical violence, verbal abuse and humiliation during counseling.
Dorthy Moxley, in comments after court, seemed to soften her stance on Michael Skakel, who has a 6-year-old son, George.
"I don't think Michael Skakel is a horrible, horrible person," she said. "I think he had drugs that night and alcohol that night, that he really cared about Martha and that something really bad happened.
"There's some good to Michael. I know there is," she added. "If he's released, I'm sure he'll be a good father and a good citizen. We've been at this for 30 years now. We just have to wait and see."
If his defense lawyers prevail on the statute of limitations argument, Skakel will be freed and cannot be tried again.
The court is not expected to rule until much later this year.
The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.