On Halloween 1975, 15-year-old Martha Moxley was found brutally murdered outside her home in swanky Greenwich, Connecticut. Twenty-seven years after her death her friend and neighbor Michael Skakel was convicted by the state of Connecticut of the murder. Cahir O'Doherty talks to Skakel’s famous first cousin Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. about his new book Framed: Why Michael Skakel Spent Over a Decade in Prison for a Murder He Didn't Commit, in which Kennedy sensationally claims to have solved the four decade long whodunnit, finally clearing Skakel's name.
The Kennedy name really hasn't lost an ounce of its mystique, nor have the surviving family members of Irish America's first family shed their legions of supporters and critics.
Sometimes that enduring legacy has buoyed them in times of crisis and sometimes it has been a millstone, more of a burden than a blessing. So it's an interesting irony that the mystique of the Kennedy name may soon help an anxious man beat a four-decade old murder rap even though, in the words of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., he doesn't have a drop of Kennedy blood in him.
On the night in October 1975 when young Martha Moxley was brutally murdered with a golf club, Michael Skakel weighed just 120 pounds and had a 28-inch waist. He stood five feet five inches tall, with long dark hair pushed back behind his ears that made him look, he told his cousin Kennedy, like a girl.
The point makes itself: to bludgeon someone to death with a golf club and then drag the person 75 feet from the murder scene requires strength, but to hit someone so hard that you actually break the golf club and then stab the person with the broken stump requires unusual strength, of a level not available to the then puny Skakel, the nephew of Kennedy’s mother Ethel.
If basic details like this were not examined by the prosecution, asks Kennedy, what else can be thrown out?
But his size, his alibi, his family wealth and connections didn't matter because Skakel was convicted in 2002 of killing his neighbor and he spent the next 10 years behind bars until a judge ordered a new trial in 2013, after finding that a defense attorney had failed to adequately represent him.
A new ruling is expected later this year from the Connecticut State Supreme Court after a request by prosecutors to reinstate the original murder conviction. Until then Skakel, 55, is free on bail.
“I first met Michael in 1983, eight years after the murder, and I got sober with him (they attended 12 step meetings together). He was never a suspect in the crime until 1997. By then I had been friends with him for 15 years and I knew he was innocent,” Kennedy told the Irish Voice during a phone interview.
The murder trial in the late 1990s had a profound effect on Kennedy, 62.
“I watched Michael's life unravel and I saw how it was happening, I saw that it was not based on evidence. It was based on passion and prejudice and he had got caught up in this kind of press frenzy,” Kennedy says.
“The prosecution and their media cohorts were accusing a ‘Kennedy’ of the crime. The whole thing was phony from the start – Michael doesn't have a drop of Kennedy blood. He's like a cousin in law once removed. He wasn't raised a Kennedy, he has never considered himself a Kennedy, and his family has its own gestalt.”
In fact the Skakels had nothing to do with the Kennedy's when they were growing up; indeed they considered it a faux pas for their friends to have any association with them. In his book Kennedy describes it as a classic Hatfield and the McCoys kind of situation (and he adds, in the blunt mathematics of the Brahmin class, the Skakels were even richer).
But watching his friend and cousin caught up in a miscarriage of justice was something that got Kennedy's Irish up.
“If you witness a mugging on the street, which no one else has seen, you can either put your head down and keep walking or you know you can get involved. I felt like I didn't have a choice,” he says.
In this era of ever widening divisions between the powerful and the powerless, it's edifying to see another Kennedy do the right thing as he sees it, especially when he knows better than anyone the abuse he'll face for putting his head above the parapet.
Kennedy knows he'll be on trial on Twitter and every other social media platform shortly, where his family name is still as potent as ever, as is the animus that has been directed against his family for over half a century.
Asked why so many people were invested in securing the – Kennedy believes – wrongful conviction he replies, “I think all of them were motivated by self-interest. Mark Fuhrman (the detective known for his part in the O.J. Simpson murder case) had an interest in rehabilitating his reputation and selling books. After finding a new celebrity murder to solve he was the first to make Michael Skakel the culprit.”
Investigative journalist Dominick Dunne (who Kennedy describes as the second of the two principal architects of Skakel's wrongful conviction) also wrote a bestselling book on the case before his death in 2009.
Tom Sheridan, the Skakel family lawyer, was driven by financial interests and his private antipathy toward the Skakel family, Kennedy claims.
And Frank Garr, says Kennedy, was a career detective who found the case to be a dead end and needed to solve it or his career was over too. The prosecutor in the case had had a loss in a previous case and now needed a win and was ambitious enough to “illegally conceal evidence,” claims Kennedy.
But what really started him out on this decades long quest to clear Skakel’s name?
“I got a letter from a guy I'd never met after an article I wrote in 2003 saying that the jury got it wrong and that he knew who the real killers were and he had met them,” Kennedy says.
His questions eventually led him to Tony Bryant, a relative of basketball superstar Kobe. “When I tracked down Tony his first words to me were, ‘I have been waiting 27 years for this phone call.’ He laid out an extraordinary story and he sounded very credible, but I was skeptical, I checked it out. Ultimately I tracked down the killers,” Kennedy says.
In his view two former New York City teenagers, Adolph Hasbrouck and Burr Tinsley, were responsible for Moxley's murder. Both have allegedly admitted to being near the scene of the crime on the same night, but both have since invoked the Fifth Amendment in refusing to testify and nether have ever been charged in connection with her death.
“I have a section where Michael Baden describes how almost impossible it is to break a golf club,” says Kennedy. “He's studied many murders involving giant thugs, you know, Mafioso types, and he had never seen a golf club break.
“He'd seen concrete floors chipped by them, but he'd never seen one break. Whoever did this had to be a giant, physically extraordinarily powerful. That fits the bill of the other two guys. It does not fit the then 120 pounds, 28-inch waist Michael Skakel.”
Kennedy's book is impressively well written, meticulously researched and presented and it makes clear that, regardless what its critics will say about Skakel's guilt or innocence, Robert Kennedy Jr. clearly believes his cousin is innocent.
What has Skakel’s experience done to Kennedy’s conception of justice?
“I was a district attorney and I had tremendous faith in the justice system. Michael's conviction brought into focus for me the power that prosecutors have to jail innocent people,” says Kennedy.
“It most often happens to people who are poor, or minorities. In this case you had a guy who had money but the prosecutor was able to put his thumb on the scale of justice and get away with concealing evidence.
“You imagine people who don't have a well-known cousin to write about them, or don't have money to get the lawyers. You can see why it happens every day in our country. There's an estimated 10,000 people in American prisons who are innocent of the crime they were convicted of.”
In his own way -- and it's a robust way -- Kennedy wants to push back against those who convicted his cousin.
Meanwhile, it's s impossible to speak to a Kennedy and not ask about the current political season and the presidential candidates.
“I think it's frightening for our country and its frightening for the world that Donald Trump might be able to ride this wave of hatred and anger into the most powerful political office in the world. It's sobering and frightening,” said Kennedy, nephew of the country’s first Irish Catholic John F. Kennedy and son of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968.
“He doesn't understand foreign policy, he’s rash and compulsive, and I don't think that's the steady hand that we need deciding foreign policy at this moment in history. He's stirring up prejudice and inflaming conflicts which have the potential to make everyone on the planet less safe.”