On October 31, 1975, the body of Martha Moxley, a 15-year-old girl, was found on her family property in the Belle Haven section of Greenwich, Connecticut. Her blue jeans and underpants were pulled down, she had been struck several times in the head with a Toney Penna golf club—so ferociously that the club had shattered into multiple pieces—and then stabbed in the neck with the broken shaft. The club’s handle and part of the shaft were not found.
Martha was last seen alive around 9:30 p.m. the previous day. Based on stomach contents, experts estimated that the time of death was between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Barking dogs, Martha’s curfew, and Dorthy Moxley’s testimony that she heard Martha cry out around 10:00 all suggested the murder occurred around 10 p.m (see note 1 below ).
Three witnesses—John Skakel, Jim Terrien, and Rush Skakel Jr. maintained from the first time they were questioned that they had left with Michael to go to Terriens’ house at 9:30, when Martha was still alive, and had returned at 11:20 ( see note 5 for more about the alibi ).
Thus 15-year-old Michael Skakel was never considered to be a suspect at the time, as he had an alibi confirmed by multiple witnesses. Instead suspicion mostly fell on his older brother Tom, and tutor Kenneth Littleton, who had moved in to the Skakel house on the day of the murder, however no charges were brought.
Michael Skakel’s father, Rushton Walter Skakel (1923–2003) was the brother of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, the widow of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (assassinated June 5, 1968), and due to the Kennedy connection the case was heavily publicised, leading to considerable speculation. In 1993, a fictional story closely resembling the Moxley case was published, and in 1998 a book by Mark Fuhrman accused Michael Skakel of the murder. In June 1998, a one-man grand jury was convened to review the evidence of the case, and after an 18-month investigation, Michael was charged with murder. On June 7, 2002 after a one-month trial, Michael was found guilty. He was sentenced to 20 years to life.
The conviction rested mainly on an alleged confession made to students at Élan School ( see note 2 below ) where Michael was sent at age seventeen after a drunk driving accident. The school practiced a controversial behavior-modification program that relies on peer confrontation. For two years Michael was continually spat upon, slapped, and deprived of sleep. He was serially beaten with hoses and by students wearing boxing gloves, forced to wear a dunce cap and a toilet seat around his neck, and subjected to a long inventory of other tortures. Various students claimed that Michael confessed during this mis-treatment, however these claims were not credible. Unfortunately, owner Joseph Ricci, who stated as much, died shortly before trial and was unable to testify. See this January 2003 article in The Atlantic ( http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/01/a-miscarriage-of-justice/304759/ ) by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for the details.
In 2003, Gitano “Tony” Bryant, a former classmate of Michael and a cousin of the basketball star Kobe Bryant, came forward with information that he and the two teenagers had been in the exclusive Belle Haven section of Greenwich on Oct. 30, 1975, the night of the murder. Bryant said that he had left early but that the other two stayed behind and told him they wanted to attack a girl “cave-man style.”
Prosecutors said Bryant’s story was not credible, and a judge agreed, however in fact his account is well corroborated by entries in Martha Moxley’s journal. For details see here and notes 3 & 4 below.
Finally in 2013 the conviction was overturned, and Michael was released on bail, however in December 2016 the State Supreme court voted 4-3 to re-instate the conviction.
The majority opinion is available here, it explains :
“Despite their efforts in the years after the murder, including extensive investigations into whether Thomas Skakel or Littleton was involved, the police were unable to connect anyone to the murder and did not make any arrests.”
and makes it clear that any statements made by Michael while at the Elan school cannot possibly be taken as reliable: “he was paddled, assaulted in a boxing ring, and forced to wear a sign that had written on it something to the effect of ‘‘please confront me on the murder of my friend, Martha Moxley . . . .’’
and “These witnesses also stated that the petitioner denied involvement in the victim’s murder, and, when the abuse continued, he parried their accusations by stating that he either did not know or could not recall what happened”.
According to a news report, the Supreme court’s minority opinion was that the lower court was “absolutely correct” in finding that by failing to pursue a third-party liability defense aimed at Thomas Skakel, and the trial attorney did not act as the competent counsel guaranteed by the sixth amendment.
See this Facebook Page ( created 31 December 2016 ) for updates.
Note 1: Later that night Dorthy went upstairs to paint the trim around some windows. While doing so, she heard a commotion down in the yard, on the side of the house where Martha was killed. “You know, I was aware of voices outside the house that night, and I’m sure that’s when it happened. There were several voices. That is cause for wonder.” from https://www.greenwichsentinel.com/2015/10/30/the-moxley-case-turns-40-with-no-end-in-sight/
Note 2: Wikipedia has details about Élan School for example ” ‘humiliation’ was stated clearly as a therapeutic tool”
“In March 2016, Maine State Police announced they had opened a cold case investigation into the death of former Elan resident Phil Williams, who died Dec. 27th, 1982 after participating in Elan’s brutal “ring” where students were forced to fight each other as a means of behavior modification”.
Note 3: See the ruling overturning the conviction (via NyTimes ) for more information. For example from pages 29-30:
The court heard evidence from Margerie Walker Haur, now of Ridgeway, Connecticut, who, as a fifteen year old teenager grew up on Mayo Avenue in Belle Haven, where she had been a close friend of the victim. She testified that she knew Bryant in 1975, and that he and her brother, Neil, had been classmates at the Brunswick School. She indicated that Mills had relayed Bryant’s story to Neil, who, in turn, repeated it to her. She indicated that her brother was frightened by the story and thought they should tell someone about it. Accordingly, she indicated, she related Bryant’s story to Garr in person and to Attorney Sherman by phone before the trial in 2002. Her impression was that neither Garr nor Attorney Sherman seemed interested in the account. In addition to speaking with Garr and Attorney Sherman, she wrote to Dorothy Moxley, the victim’s mother, on May 24, 2002, in which she recounted Bryant’s tale. While Garr denied meeting Walker, and Attorney Sherman stated he had no recollection of such a conversation, the court credits her testimony as accurate and true.
Note 4: News report July 30, 2014 on unidentified hairs:
In April, Seeger requested a court order protecting two unidentified pieces of hair found on sheets used to wrap Moxley’s body, according to court documents. The cataloguing of key hair evidence had been “inconsistent and discombobulated” over the years, Seeger argued, suffering from redundant labeling and weak record-keeping.
The hairs, Seeger said, possess characteristics that match the description of Adolf Hasbrouk and Burton Tinsley, two men named in out-of-court comments by Skakel’s former schoolmate, Gitano “Tony” Bryant, as the true killers of Moxley. Bryant’s claims have been previously dismissed by prosecutors and the courts.
“These hairs are connected to two individuals that have been spoken about by another witness,” said Seeger. “They have African-American and Asian characteristics, and these are hairs that will be instrumental in our third-party culpability motion to the trial.”
The state could not confirm Wednesday whether the evidence remained in its possession.
Note 5: The key habeas alibi witness, Dennis Ossorio. From Page 49 – 54 of https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/809322/skakel.pdf
2. Failure to Adequately Present the Alibi
The petitioner claims that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel on the basis of his assertion that Attorney Sherman failed, adequately, to present his alibi defense.
Specifically, the petitioner claims that Attorney Sherman failed to investigate and then to present the testimony of Dennis Ossorio, an independent witness who would have testified that the petitioner was at the Terrien home, a location approximately twenty minutes distant from the murder site during the time period in which the victim was most likely murdered.
At the habeas trial, Dennis Ossorio, now seventy-two years old, testified that in 1975, he, as a psychologist, was operating a program for women. He indicated that he then had a personal connection to Dowdle and that he had been at the Terrien home in the evening hours of October 30, 1975, visiting with Dowdle and her daughter. He testified that, while there, he had visited with the Skakel brothers, including the petitioner, and Terrien, while they were watching the Monty Python show on television. He indicated that he was in and out of the room where the others were watching Monty Python while Dowdle was putting her daughter to bed. Finally, he indicated that he left the Terrien residence at about midnight and was not sure whether the Skakels had left before him. Thus, Ossorio’s testimony supported the petitioner’s claim that during the likely time of the murder, he was away from Belle Haven, as he indicated.
To the court, Ossorio was a disinterested and credible witness with a clear recollection of seeing the petitioner at the Terrien home on the evening in question. He testified credibly that not only was he present in the home with Dowdle and that he saw the petitioner there, but that he lived in the area throughout the time of the trial and would have readily been available to testify if asked. He indicated that while he was aware of the general parameters of the state’s claim against the petitioner, he did not pay close attention to the trial and he did not come forward because he was unaware of the significance of the particular information he possessed.
He indicated that he had not been contacted by Attorney Sherman or by the state in conjunction with the investigation or trial. To the court, Ossorio was a powerful witness in support of the petitioner’s alibi claim.