A Plea for Mercy
05/12/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
His brother Stephen and sister Julie make the journey every week to the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, Conn. But the person Michael Skakel—now serving 20 years to life for the murder of Martha Moxley—says he would like to see most, his 4-year-old son George (with ex-wife Margot Sheridan), hasn't come to visit him. The family believes it would be too upsetting for the youngster. And that is the punishment Skakel says he finds hardest to bear. In a series of written answers to questions posed by PEOPLE, his first lengthy communication since his conviction last June, Skakel says that from his first day behind bars he wept to God for mercy for himself and his son. "I did that every day," he said. "I do that still."
Although a Connecticut jury found him guilty in the vicious bludgeoning death of 15-year-old Martha Moxley in her family's Greenwich yard on Oct. 30, 1975, Skakel continues to proclaim his innocence. In recent months his family has embarked on an aggressive legal appeal and simultaneously launched a public relations campaign to win sympathy for Michael. Even Michael's cousin Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has joined the cause, vigorously arguing that Skakel, 42, is the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. "His conviction and the destruction of another family," says Kennedy, "has only compounded the original tragedy of Martha's death." "We're not going to be quiet," says Skakel's brother John, 43, "and we're not going to go away." But as prosecutor Jonathan Benedict says of the PR effort, "These things happen after every conviction in a major case. There's always disappointment."
Answering People's questions from his prison cell, Skakel shed new light on a family that, he suggests, was as dysfunctional as it was wealthy. Skakel says that when his mother, Anne, became ill with brain cancer in 1968, when he was 8 years old, he was told instead that she had eaten some "bad shellfish." Later, he says, he was staggered when he saw she had lost her hair and gained a great deal of weight from the medical treatments. "I asked someone, 'What happened to her hair?' I was told it was 'bad' shampoo," he writes. "I stopped using shampoo [because] I did not want to look like my mom."
When his mother finally succumbed to the cancer in 1973, the news came as a complete shock. Skakel says his father, Rushton Sr., an aloof and imperious man, simply announced to the seven kids one day, "Well, you know what happened, she's dead!" Recalls Michael: "I was so stunned I could not get out of my seat. When everybody left, I screamed."
The main thrust of the family offensive is that Michael has been railroaded by bloodthirsty media, author Dominick Dunne in particular, and a justice system eager to win a conviction at any cost. Brother Stephen, 36, believes they were not well served by their lawyer Mickey Sherman, who, he says, collected a fee of roughly $2 million and was preoccupied with the "media spotlight." Sherman says he stands by his "conduct in court and out of court in this case."
The Skakels reserve their greatest bitterness for what they see as the blatant distortion of facts during prosecutor Benedict's summation at the trial—a powerful audio-visual display that sought to hang Skakel with his own words. At one point in his presentation, Benedict played a 1997 tape of Michael in an interview with a writer, saying, "Oh, my God, did they see me last night?" while, on the screen, there appeared the image of Martha's battered body—leaving the impression that Michael had been worried about being spotted committing the murder.
But as another part of the tape that Benedict chose not to play makes clear, Skakel was referring to the now infamous episode in which he said he had masturbated outside Martha's window the night of the killing. "For a moment, I was convinced Michael had done it," recalls his brother David, 39, of the closing argument. "Then I came to my senses and realized I'd just been manipulated. I was really scared because I knew the effect it would have on the jury." Benedict maintains he did nothing at all underhanded and that the passage quoted was merely designed to underscore Skakel's panic the next morning. "This is an adversary process," says Benedict. "We present the evidence in a light that we feel is most favorable to the claims we are making, and the defense is certainly free to present it in whatever form they want."
The Skakel camp argues that authorities should have paid closer attention to Kenneth Littleton, a tutor for the Skakel children who had moved in with the family the day of Martha's murder. (In 1998 Littleton was given immunity in the case in return for his testimony against Michael.) Among the bill of particulars against Littleton is a supposed discrepancy in his alibi for the night in question. In an article earlier this year in The Atlantic Monthly, Robert Kennedy Jr. also provided a catalog of incidents involving Littleton since the killing, including arrests for burglary, drunk driving, disorderly conduct and a bizarre episode in which he claimed to be a member of the Kennedy family. As Kennedy put it, "I do not know that Ken Littleton killed Martha Moxley. I do know...that the state's case against Littleton was much stronger than any case against Michael Skakel."
While acknowledging that "some unfortunate things" have happened to Littleton, his lawyer Eugene Riccio points out that there is a "significant difference between those situations and beating a teenager to death with a golf club." And in fact the prosecution team dismisses this focus on Littleton as mere desperation. While the tutor was considered a suspect, the suspicions never panned out. "I have never seen anybody investigated as extensively and thoroughly as Ken Littleton," says Benedict. "And absolutely nothing of any substance was ever developed against him." Above all, says Benedict, Littleton has an "airtight" alibi, which was corroborated by Skakel's own sister Julie at the trial.
Skakel's appeal, which will be heard this fall in the Connecticut Supreme Court, rests on several issues, among them the argument that there was a 5-year statute of limitations for murder in effect in 1975. His lawyers also claim that prosecutors withheld potentially exculpatory evidence, including a police sketch of a man seen walking near the crime scene that night, an allegation that Benedict flatly says is untrue. According to Yale Law School Professor Steven Duke, the defense does have a "substantial chance" of having the conviction overturned on the statute of limitations point.
If his appeal fails, Skakel won't be eligible for parole until 2014 at the earliest. In the meantime he insists he is not the man responsible for such a heinous act. What would he say to the Moxley family, still mourning their loss after more than 25 years? Says Skakel: "I am innocent."
Fannie Weinstein in New York City