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Burden of Proof
Murder in Greenwich: The Case Against Michael SkakelAired June 21, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JONATHAN BENEDICT, STATE'S ATTORNEY: What we established today is that there were two people that Michael Skakel has admitted his presence at the crime scene. It is the nature of a crime where the only person who could be present is the perpetrator.
MICHAEL SHERMAN, ATTORNEY FOR MICHAEL SKAKEL: My client was emotional. This is a very disturbing thing for anybody, but when you have somebody come and say in court that you killed someone, and then have that person in your presence admit that they are lying about it. I think it would kind of crack anybody up.
JOHN MOXLEY, MARTHA MOXLEY'S BROTHER: Well, he could have been tried as an adult in '75. It could have gone to the court that way. And then, you know, for the last 25 years, he's hid, you know, run away from the justice. Why shouldn't he be paying for it now, for what he's been doing then?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: the case against Michael Skakel. Nearly a quarter-century after the brutal murder of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley, witnesses finally take the stand at a hearing in Stamford.
ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.
COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.
On Halloween, 1975, the body of teenager Martha Moxley was found on the lawn of her family home in Greenwich, Connecticut. Fifteen- year-old Martha had been beaten with a golf club and stabbed with its shaft.
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Twenty-five years later, her former neighbor faces charges in the slaying. Defendant Michael Skakel is now 39 years old. Prosecutors began calling witnesses this week at a hearing to determine if Skakel, who was 15 at the time of the murder, should be tried as an adult.
COSSACK: On the stand yesterday, two former classmates of Skakel at a school for troubled youth testified that Skakel confessed to killing Moxley. Witness Gregory Coleman said Skakel told him he drove Moxley's skull in.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Is there any doubt in your mind that this man should be tried as an adult?
BENEDICT: When you commit a murder of a child, you should be treated as an adult, if the law allows it, and it seems to allow it here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VAN SUSTEREN: Joining us today from New Haven, Connecticut, is trial attorney and law professor David Rosen. And in Boston, we're joined by David Meier, the chief of homicide at the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office.
COSSACK: And here in Washington, Cason Hinkley (ph); former federal prosecutor Peter Spivack; and Amy Hefner (ph). In the back, Leigh Ann Mitchell (ph), Ginna Clark (ph), and Catherine Noyes (ph).
VAN SUSTEREN: And also joining us from outside the courthouse in Stamford, Connecticut, is CNN correspondent Deborah Feyerick.
Deborah, what happened this morning in court?
DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this morning was a cross-examination of the former schoolmate who you mentioned, Gregory Coleman, and he testified that he was sure, without a doubt, that Michael Skakel confessed to murder. And Coleman said he wasn't 99 percent sure, he was 100 percent sure. And he said that Skakel confessed two times.
Now, the defense lawyer, Michael Sherman, cited a letter basically saying that Coleman was testifying simply because he wanted a reduced sentence and also money to get his life back on track after he is released. He is serving about eight months of criminal trespassing, which is a misdemeanor.
Now, Coleman came forward, he said, after seeing Mrs. Moxley on a television program. He said he felt sort of an overwhelming sense of justice because the mother of his own son was recently murdered and Coleman said he never felt justice was done in that case.
Now, on the stand, Coleman testified about the school, the Elan School for Substance Abuse, and some of the stories coming out are actually -- were absolutely horrifying. In one instance, he recalls how kids were put into what they called "the ring," and the kids were beaten until they were no longer standing, or until they yelled out whatever it was that the kids were doing the beating wanted them to yell out or confess.
And he said, in one example, a girl was beaten so badly that she actually went into shock. And when asked what she was beaten with, Coleman said oak and wooden paddles, as well as open fists. Now, right now on the stand is a former friend of Michael Skakel's, a gentleman by the name of Andrew Pew (ph). And he testified just a few minutes ago that Michael was attracted or infatuated with Martha. And Andrew Pew said, when he went to the Skakel home the day after the murder, that Michael was the one who told him that Martha was dead -- Greta, Roger.
VAN SUSTEREN: Deborah, did Mr. Coleman explain why he didn't come forward earlier in a time more -- at least contemporaneous with the alleged statement by Michael Skakel?
FEYERICK: Well, that's one of the big questions that Skakel's lawyer is trying to bring out on some of the witnesses who are testifying now. But Coleman really said that at the time that Skakel confessed, they were all teenagers, and he didn't feel it was necessary. He sort of thought this was something everybody confessed to is what he said on the stand. So the reason he came forward, the reason it took so long, he said, well, he felt it was time.
COSSACK: Deborah, has Coleman been consistent with his statements that he has made all along, or has there been a time when he has waivered in what he has said?
FEYERICK: ... waivered about his statement. He seemed to have a good memory about what Michael Skakel told him. The one thing he did say is that his long-term memory was much better than his short-term memory. And the reason he said is because he admitted being an alcoholic and also drug addicted. But he really said that he recalls pretty much everything about what happened at that time, although he did admit that his short-term memory is perhaps a bit more questionable.
VAN SUSTEREN: Deborah, you said that he is serving time for a misdemeanor, it is criminal trespassing, I have read, and confirm if this is correct, is that he has a 1983 conviction for robbery. First of all, is that true? and secondly, what's he been doing for the last 20 years?
FEYERICK: We do believe that that conviction for robbery is true. What this criminal trespassing involves actually is his wife.
VAN SUSTEREN: But does he have an occupation? Does Mr. Coleman have an occupation? Has he been doing anything for the last 20 years?
FEYERICK: He really hasn't talked about what he's been doing, he's just recounted what's been a very hard and difficult life. And he said, you know, in recent years he's been out on the street. He said the reason he broke into his wife's home is because he was cold. The reason she had kicked him out was because he was going to get crack, and she said don't bother coming back. So he hasn't gone into detail about sort of what his life has constituted. And he said, one of the reasons he asked for money is because his father, who apparently had been supporting him for a number of years in his life, recently passed away, and he didn't know whether there was going to be any money left to him in his will. COSSACK: Now, he asked the prosecutor for money? is that what he originally wanted? He said, I'll come in and testify if you give me some money?
FEYERICK: He wrote a letter to one of the inspectors, an inspector by the name of Frank Garr (ph), saying, in essence, sort of, you know: What is in it for me? But then he said: Well, I had every intention of coming forward anyway, he just wanted some seed money to get back on his feet after being released from prison.
VAN SUSTEREN: All right, now, Mr. Coleman testified, finished his testimony today. But yesterday, if you could just recap for us, John Higgins also testified that Michael Skakel made some statement and admission. Who is John Higgins? What was said? And was he cross-examined?
FEYERICK: Yes, he was. John Higgins, also a former schoolmate, was 14 years old at the time that he met Michael Skakel. And he said that The two of them were on something called night patrol, effectively some of the kids for this Elan School for Substance Abusers would patrol the grounds at night, just to make sure no one ran away.
And he said, it was during one of these late-night patrols that Michael Skakel broke down and started sobbing and crying, telling him that he thought he may have been involved in the murder, although he didn't know to what extent he had been involved. And during the course of the investigation, Higgins later testified, Michael Skakel said he did it.
Well, it was on cross-examination that the defense attorney, Mickey Sherman, tore that apart, saying: Well, on one hand, you say he committed it; and the other hand, looking back at a conversation he had had with an investigator, Higgins had said, if there was a confession, I would be telling you.
So there -- that was a bit more troubling, as far as state's attorneys hoped it might be.
COSSACK: Deborah, I just make this quick, as far as you know, are there any other witnesses other than the two that you have just described who will actually say that Michael Skakel confessed?
FEYERICK: Well, we're not quite sure. The state's attorney isn't letting us in on his game plan right now. But yesterday, when he was asked the question, the state's attorney, as to whether there would be more schoolmates testifying, he said: Well, these weren't our best witnesses. So what that means, whether there is somebody else who was at Elan, of course, it's going to be a long couple of days.
VAN SUSTEREN: And of course, there is no physical evidence tying Michael Skakel directly to this crime. But we need to take a break.
COSSACK: I know, that's not their best witnesses. VAN SUSTEREN: Deborah Feyerick, thank you for joining us today from Stamford, Connecticut. Up next, the Martha Moxley murder case has been on the books for 25 years. How will the past quarter century change how this crime will be prosecuted and defended? Stay with us.
(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)
Five men were indicted yesterday and charged with sexual abuse and rioting for the attacks in Central Park on June 11.
The men face up to seven years in prison if convicted.
(END LEGAL BRIEF)
COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the Worldwide Web. Just log onto cnn.com/burden. We now provide a live video feed Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show, and even join our chat room.
VAN SUSTEREN: Yesterday in a Stamford, Connecticut courtroom, defendant Michael Skakel broke down in tears after hearing testimony against him. Twenty-five years after the murder of his neighbor, Martha Moxley, Skakel is accused of the brutal killing.
David, if you could please give Roger and me a lesson -- David Rosen -- in Connecticut law: Here's a man who's 39. He was 15 at the time that Martha Moxley died. Does -- under Connecticut law, is there an option to be tried as juvenile or an adult at this late date, and what's the standard?
DAVID ROSEN, TRIAL ATTORNEY: The law never -- this never occurred to whoever wrote the law. The best that anybody can figure out is that the law does say that the judge has to, first of all, find there's probable cause that the crime was committed by the defendant. But also, the judge has to say that the defendant is not amenable to rehabilitation, which is something that you talk about when someone just committed the crime not 25 years later. And the judge has to say that restraint beyond the age of 21 is necessary to protect the community, which is also something you don't talk about 25 years later.
VAN SUSTEREN: David, then -- I mean, criminal law is to be read very strictly, very literally. When there's a gray area, it's to the benefit of the accused. If there's no -- if whoever wrote this law didn't anticipate it, then I assume the law doesn't specifically address this. So how can either court take jurisdiction over Michael Skakel?
ROSEN: That's exactly what Mickey Sherman, on behalf of the defense, I expect, will be saying, because the law talks about not only crimes committed by children, but prosecutions of children. And whatever Michael Skakel is, he's no child. But there's a real argument to be made that the court has lost jurisdiction.
COSSACK: OK, now I'm going to weigh in with what I don't understand.
VAN SUSTEREN: I already said you didn't understand. I dragged you into it.
COSSACK: Yes, here's my dumb question to follow up.
VAN SUSTEREN: Follow my dumb question?
COSSACK: David, if jurisdiction -- let's see if I can make this clear so at least the viewers can understand it.
VAN SUSTEREN: Even if we can't.
COSSACK: If jurisdiction means that the court has the power to hear the case, and that has to be decided, initially, which court? Is it the juvenile court or is it the adult court? How can this court be hearing the case without having made the decision that it may not have the power to hear the case?
ROSEN: Well, the fisk (ph) court, the juvenile court, has the power to decide whether to send the case to a different court. So that's given...
COSSACK: No, but I understand that, but...
VAN SUSTEREN: But they don't have jurisdiction over him.
COSSACK: ... suppose it may -- suppose that this judge hears the whole case and then says two things -- one, there's probably cause to hold him over, or maybe there's not probably cause; and two, I don't have jurisdiction to hear this case -- isn't everything that's just gone on kind of like for naught?
ROSEN: Everything that's just gone on is exactly like for naught. But it's not so clear that the judge is even going to take a look at that. This judge seems -- perhaps because the parties have agreed to it -- seems to be sitting there listening to the evidence just as if Mr. Skakel were 15 years old.
VAN SUSTEREN: But, you know, David, you know, it seems to me -- you know, I don't know if Michael Skakel's guilty or not guilty, but I don't know how a juvenile judge even can bring him into court to talk about this because he is not a juvenile. It's almost as though your Connecticut legislators have given Michael Skakel a pass, guilty or not, and that you are now all scrambling to try to figure out a way to cover up for the past.
ROSEN: Well, I'm sure the people in Connecticut would say they're not covering up the past, they're trying to uncover the past. But in terms of the legal rights and remedies, this is a case that there's a real good argument to be made that nobody does have jurisdiction, and that the court's trying to create some kind of rough form of justice. But it's too late. VAN SUSTEREN: But then that goes back to my initial question, is that the criminal law is supposed to be very plain and very simple, and that you have notice ahead of time, and you can't sort of invent remedies later to correct a problem you failed to handle.
COSSACK: But -- and I agree with you, but isn't that the problem here, is they're sort of going along as they go long, and then they'll come to the end and make a decision?
VAN SUSTEREN: Therein lies the problem. I think first they have to resolve the problem over, you know, as the theoretical matter...
VAN SUSTEREN: ... you know, which court can or could assert jurisdiction. You don't first have the hearing in terms of the...
COSSACK: It doesn't make any sense. It just doesn't make any sense.
David, help us out.
ROSEN: Well, what we don't know is why, if Mickey Sherman hasn't challenged the jurisdiction and raised a whole lot of paper objections to the whole procedure, why -- you know, why he hasn't done that. And the defense strategy seems to have been from day one not to get into procedural niceties but to say, the point here is that my client is innocent. And that's a, you know, high-risk strategy.
VAN SUSTEREN: He could do both: He didn't do it and, guess what? You don't have...
COSSACK: And you can't decide it.
VAN SUSTEREN: Right, and you can't decide if he did or didn't do it.
COSSACK: Let's take a break. Up next: If convicted, what will happen to Michael Skakel? Stay with us.
COSSACK: A quarter-century after Martha Moxley's body was found on her parent's lawn, former neighbor Michael Skakel is accused in the killing. Like the victim, Skakel was 15 years old at the time of the crime. If convicted, will he be treated like a teenager, or a 39- year-old man?
Let me go to David Meier in Boston.
David, what will happen to Skakel if he is convicted? What are the options, and what could happen?
DAVID MEIER, CHIEF OF HOMICIDE, SUFFOLK COUNTY D.A.'S OFFICE: Well, if Mr. Skakel's lawyers are successful in keeping the case in the juvenile court, he faces a far less severe penalty if he's convicted. If the judge in fact transfers the case to the adult court, he potentially could face life imprisonment.
VAN SUSTEREN: Peter, you know, it's sort of interesting as a defense lawyer -- and you now do some defense work -- is that if he's tried as a juvenile, it's a single finder of fact, the judge, but he faces only four years. If he's tried as an adult, he faces life, but he's got 12 fact-finders, the jury.
Which, as a tactical matter, would you prefer as a defense attorney and as a prosecutor?
PETER SPIVACK, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I think because of the ultimate sanction, I'd much prefer the juvenile court. You know, I think in this kind of case you want to raise the legal issues about the jurisdiction that was being spoken of before. Then you want to contest the factual matters. And, boy, you want to be in the juvenile court when doing that.
VAN SUSTEREN: What about the prosecutor? Does the prosecutor want to be in the juvenile court, although it would be a different prosecutor, or be in adult court?
SPIVACK: Well, the prosecutor is looking at the end result, the bottom line. If he thinks, and he's convinced, and he has evidence that Michael Skakel committed this murder 25 years ago, he wants...
VAN SUSTEREN: What if we've got two, as we say, snitches, and no physical evidence tying him to the crime? What do you want as a prosecutor. You want the jury or the judge?
SPIVACK: I think you still want to be in the adult court, because you think that this guy committed murder. You want to put him away for a long time.
COSSACK: David Meier, as a prosecutor, this apparently is a very tough case for the prosecution. They have two -- there are only two witnesses that apparently connect -- at least say that Skakel confessed -- have been impeached.
What do you do in a situation like this?
MEIER: Well, I think one does exactly what the prosecutor is doing. And one tries to portray -- at least to the judge at this stage -- what a horrifying crime this in fact was; that in fact the defendant had a particular motive for committing the crime; and that, in fact, there is circumstantial evidence that he, in fact, is the person that did in fact commit the crime.
VAN SUSTEREN: But David Meier, it reminds me of when an appellate judge once said to me about trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. You have no physical evidence tying him to the crime. It's stale. It's old. Two witnesses who said he did it were in a drug alcohol rehab with him. One has prior convictions. They never came forward. As a prosecutor, you're in a very tough spot.
Would you agree? MEIER: Yes, you certainly are, but at the same time, I think to the extent that you can be honest with that judge, and ultimately honest with that jury, and tell them from the outset that this is a case without physical evidence. This is a circumstantial case. And if you can get both of those particular witnesses to explain on direct examination why they did not come forward, I think you are far further along towards gaining a conviction.
VAN SUSTEREN: In good conscience, Peter, could you -- based on what I said, assuming that to be the facts here -- could you bring this case?
SPIVACK: Well, I think as a prosecutor you might have a duty to. I think that if you believe the two witnesses, as evidently the prosecutor does, that you have to bring this case.
VAN SUSTEREN: How you can believe them in light of the fact they never came forward, this is drug and alcohol, prior convictions.
COSSACK: I'm not sure -- do they have -- do they have to believe -- David Meier, does the prosecutor have to believe those witnesses, or does the prosecutor just have to believe that, in good faith, their story should be told to a jury?
MEIER: I think the prosecutor has to believe those witnesses. The prosecutor has to believe that Michael Skakel is responsible for Martha Moxley's death. And without that belief, he shouldn't be bringing the case. I assume that he does. And that's the reason that he's marshaling the evidence. The case is not going to get any better.
VAN SUSTEREN: David Rosen, what do you think in terms of what's the prosecutor's obligation in trying to decide whether to bring a case or not. Obviously, this is a terrible murder.
What is the prosecutor to look at?
ROSEN: Well, the prosecutor has to start by having an absolute, firm conviction in his or her own mind that they're prosecuting the right person. It's irresponsible for the prosecutor to toss the evidence up and let the jury convict someone the prosecutor may not be sure about. I think what we also want to remember is that this is day two. We could have a class reunion of the Elan school by the time we're done hearing all the people testifying in this case.
VAN SUSTEREN: Point very well taken. You never know until it's over.
COSSACK: Peter, you know, I think David Rosen and David Meier both bring up a good point. But how, as a prosecutor, how sure can you ever be? I mean, when you say he has to be sure that he did it...
VAN SUSTEREN: Well, confessions are pretty good sure, if you have one, by good, you know...
SPIVACK: Well, you have to be sure enough to charge the case. I mean, you don't act as the finder of fact. I mean, that's the jury's job.
COSSACK: All right.
SPIVACK: The jury is the one that weighs the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses.
COSSACK: And I have to cut you off and I apologize.
That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.
Today on CNN's "TALKBACK LIVE": Should the U.S. government officially apologize for more than 200 years of slavery? That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific. ] VAN SUSTEREN: And Texas death row inmate Gary Graham was convicted of a 1981 murder based on the testimony of a sole eyewitness. On the eve of his date with the death chamber, we'll discuss the Graham case tonight on CNN "NEWSSTAND." That's at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time.
COSSACK: The Graham case will also be the subject of our program tomorrow. So join us then for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF.
We'll see you then.
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