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Special Counsel Robert Mueller has proven adept at raiding lawyers’ offices in the middle of the night but the former FBI boss has not been able to identify the specific crime that might justify his massive ongoing investigation. Those who find this troubling might consider the case of Michael Skakel, the nephew of Ethel Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, who was President John F. Kennedy’s brother and U.S. attorney general.
This case does feature an actual crime, the murder of Martha Moxley, 15, in Greenwich, Connecticut in October 1975. Last week, the Connecticut Supreme Court vacated Skakel’s conviction and awarded the convicted murderer a new trial. Skakel, now 58, is free on bail, as he was in 2013 when a lower court overturned his conviction. The Connecticut Supreme Court reinstated Skakel’s conviction in 2016 but has now tossed it.
There was no new exculpatory evidence in the form of DNA or anything from forensic science. Rather, the court ruled that Skakel’s attorney did not show evidence of a possible alibi from one witness. This allegedly enabled the prosecution unfairly to raise questions about Skakel’s whereabouts at the time of the crime.
Skakel’s current lawyer maintains that the previous attorney, Michael Sherman, did not make good choices in the case. All told, that is pretty weak stuff to toss a murder conviction in such a disturbing crime.
On October 30, 1975, somebody took a golf club and struck Martha Moxley, 15, on the head with enough force to shatter the club, which the killer then used to stab the victim through the neck. As in In the Heat of the Night, police had the body, which was dead. They also had the murder weapon, a rare Toney Penna six-iron, which came from a set of clubs owned by the Skakel family, neighbors of the Moxleys in the upscale Greenwich enclave of Belle Haven.
The Skakel boys—Thomas, 18, and Michael, 15—had been with Martha that night. Both had alibis but later changed them. The physical evidence pointed to the family but Greenwich police seemed more interested in any other suspect, including a mysterious transient nobody had seen. The case went cold and Michael Skakel continued his privileged life.
The troubled youth graduated from Curry College and in 1994 worked on the reelection campaign of Edward Moore Kennedy, JFK and RFK’s youngest brother, better known as Ted. Michael helped Ted win reelection but the murder of Martha Moxley not been forgotten. In fact, it caught the attention of former detective Mark Fuhrman.
In his 1998 book, Murder in Greenwich: Who Killed Martha Moxley? Fuhrman showed how Greenwich police served as a private security force for the wealthy Skakel family. Inexperienced with murder cases, local police also botched the investigation, particularly the crime scene. Local police and authorities also did their best to block Fuhrman’s investigation. The Moxley family cooperated, and Fuhrman showed that Martha had ample reason to fear Michael, known for violent behavior.
The book helped reopen the case and in 2002 Michael Skakel was sentenced to 20 years to life for murdering Moxley. In 2003, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote a lengthy article in the Atlantic insisting that Michael Skakel was innocent and his imprisonment a miscarriage of justice.
Ten years later, Skakel walked free but the Connecticut high court reinstated the murder conviction in 2016. That same court has now vacated Skakel’s conviction, raising the question of whether the justice system would render a similar outcome to someone with no connection to the Kennedy family.
“Are there two systems of justice in this country?” Mark Fuhrman asked in Murder in Greenwich, “one for the rich, and another for the rest of us?” As it happens, the Moxley murder is hardly the only case of police and the courts giving special treatment to the Kennedy family.
On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy drove a car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. Kennedy escaped unharmed but 28-year-old passenger Mary Jo Kopechne died. George Killen, a detective with the Massachusetts state police, told author Leo Damore that Kennedy “killed that girl the same as if he put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.”
Ted Kennedy got only a two-year suspended sentence for leaving the scene of an accident and in 1970 was reelected to the U.S. Senate. The recent film Chappaquiddick did capture something of Kennedy’s facility for falsehood but explains that he went on to be the “lion of the Senate,” allegedly a great man.
Meanwhile, President John Kennedy picked his brother Bobby as attorney general because he was the best person for the job. Nepotism had nothing to do with it. Just so you know.
Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images (top); Pool/Getty Images (middle)