originally published May 8, 2013
Every so often I like to dig into a juicy murder story. Maybe it’s my ghoulish dark side, or perhaps the powerful influence of Murder, She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher on my young brain, but a slowly unraveling murder mystery is a thing of beauty. Of course, when the story is real, the beauty is lost and replaced by a spearing curiosity as to the coldest and most nefarious potentials of the human brain.
This one contains power (sort of), fame (somewhat), and tree-based masturbation. It’s dark, tragic, and almost snaky enough to have eluded authorities. Almost, but not quite.
Was the right killer brought to justice? Or is an innocent man languishing behind bars, cursing his misfortune at being pinned for a slaughter he never committed? I’m only here to report the facts. Well, the facts as represented in Wikipedia, and maybe a few other sources if I’m feeling particularly motivated. I don’t know – I’ve got an article about football lined up for tomorrow, so it’s a busy week.
One thing is clear – the murderer (and though he denies his guilt, a court has ruled otherwise) is related to this guy:
Michael Skakel’s aunt, Ethel Skakel, was married to Robert F. Kennedy when Michael was born in 1960. Believe it or not, this technically makes him a part of that magical royal dynasty family, even though Michael probably has few if any memories of his Uncle Bobby who was assassinated when Michael was only eight.
Michael’s childhood was far from a fairytale though. His father was a violent abusive alcoholic and his mother passed away when he was 13. When he was 18 he was busted for drunk driving in New York, and had to be sent to a ‘therapeutic boarding school’ to receive treatment for his own alcoholism. But I’m jumping ahead of myself. The night that would come to define Michael’s life had long-since concluded by the time he’d been busted for his DUI. That night took place in 1975, when Michael was just fifteen years old.
On October 30, the Skakels were throwing a Halloween shindig at their place. A young Martha Moxley (pictured above) was flirting with, and eventually got to first base with Thomas Skakel, Michael’s older brother. The two were spotted making out behind a fence near the family’s pool around 9:30pm.
The next day, Martha’s body was found – partially disrobed but not sexually assaulted – under a tree in her family’s backyard, about a block away. She had been beaten and stabbed with a broken six-iron, which was traced back to the Skakels’ house. The suspects included Michael, but the cops were poking a little deeper around Thomas and a guy named Kenneth Littleton, who was a live-in tutor for the family. So who did they arrest?
No one. There wasn’t enough evidence and the case went cold. Thomas and Michael’s alibis altered as the years went by. Two former students at the Elan School (the boarding school Michael later attended) heard Michael confess to the murder. Another resident heard Michael say he was “going to get away with murder”, because he was “a Kennedy.” Michael’s alibi was that he was masturbating in a tree beside the family property between 11:30pm and 12:30, when the murder took place. That’s a solid hour of tree-wankery. Hardly convincing.
Fast-forward to 1991. Michael had spent years on the speed-skiing circuit, he had a college degree, and was soon to be married to pro golfer Margo Sheridan. William Kennedy Smith – Michael’s cousin, RFK and JFK’s nephew – was famously arrested for rape. It was rumored that he was at the Skakel’s house that night, and possibly involved with the murder. That thread led to nothing, but it got investigators interested in the case again. The cold case was heating up.
The Skakel family hired a private detective to look into the matter themselves. This backfired, as it was through this investigation that it was revealed that Michael and Thomas changed their stories about that night. Other books were written also, including one by Mark Fuhrman, that LAPD detective who was convicted for perjury in the OJ Simpson case. Fuhrman pegged Michael as the killer, claiming the police had botched the investigation.
1998 was a busy year for Michael Skakel. His son was born, he got divorced, and he was formally charged with Martha Moxley’s murder. The trial was… well, it was quirky. Part of the evidence provided by the prosecution was an audio recording of a book proposal, in which Michael spoke about masturbating in a tree the night of the murder, and panicking because he thought he’d been caught. The prosecution used that recording, overlaid upon graphic images of the victim’s body, in a strange Powerpoint presentation during their closing arguments. I assume this was all overtop a Sarah McLachlan music bed for impact, like those commercials about the abused pets.
Also, the portion of the audio book proposal was edited for the presentation, making it sound more like he was confessing to being worried of being caught for murder, not for spanking his potato. Was this a manipulation of the jury’s minds, presenting Michael’s words overtop the gruesome images of the murder? No matter, the judge allowed it, and Michael was sentenced to 20 years to life on June 7, 2002.
The following January, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly, claiming his cousin to be innocent, and asserting that there was more evidence pointing at Kenneth Littleton, the live-in nanny. Michael’s appeal made its way up to the Connecticut Supreme Court, with the valid point that Michael should have technically been tried in juvenile court, given that he was only 15 when the murder took place. The Supreme Court gave a thumbs-down.
The federal Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 2006. At one point Gitano Bryant, Kobe Bryant’s cousin (I swear, I’m not making this up) came forward and claimed a friend who was with them that night had talked about raping the victim. Bryant hadn’t mentioned it before because his mother told him that, as a black man, this would put the spotlight on him for the murder. Michael’s defense team demanded a new trial, but the judge refused, claiming Bryant’s testimony was not credible.
Just last year, his team applied for a sentence reduction based on the juvenile aspect of his case. They lost. He was denied parole last October, and will be locked up until at least his next parole hearing in 2017.
So did an innocent man get locked up for someone else’s act of murder? Did Michael actually commit the crime, but evade capture for more than two decades? How does one get comfortable enough in a tree to masturbate for an hour anyway?
It’s an intriguing story, certainly on par with anything Ms. Fletcher would have dealt with in Cabot Cove. I hope one day the truth is fully revealed.