Bill Hewitt
June 24, 2002 12:00 PM

As word raced through the courthouse in Norwalk, Conn., that a verdict had been reached, Dorthy Moxley felt herself clench with nervous tension. For 15 minutes she sat in her customary front-row seat, gripping the arm of her son John, waiting for the jury to come in. “My heart was hardly beating,” says Dorthy, 70. “I may have said a prayer.” Then came the stunning verdict: guilty. Recalls Dorthy: “I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.’ ”

Nor could a great many other people. Twenty-seven years after Dorthy’s 15-year-old daughter, Martha Moxley, was found bludgeoned to death outside her home in Greenwich, Conn., their former neighbor Michael Skakel had been convicted of the crime, despite the lack of any eyewitnesses or direct physical a evidence linking him to the murder. What Kennedy cousin Skakel, now 41, ultimately did have going against him was the skill of prosecutor Jonathan Benedict, 55, whose closing statement to the jury was quickly hailed as a masterpiece. “This was the rare case in my experience that was won during summations,” I says Jeffrey Toobin, a former prosecutor, who did legal commentary on the trial for CNN. “That was the best I ever heard from a prosecutor.”

Though Skakel never took the stand during the trial, Benedict used his words, as uttered in conversations and interviews over the years, against him to devastating effect. The prosecutor, who has been trying cases for the state for more than 25 years, showed how Skakel’s account of the night of the murder, Oct. 30, 1975, had changed dramatically—starting with his insistence that he had barely seen Martha to his bizarre admission in 1992 that he had climbed a tree near her room and masturbated. As Benedict told it, that tale was clearly intended to cover Skakel in the event that any of his DNA was found near the murder scene. (In fact, though, no such evidence was recovered.) The prosecutor also zeroed in on Skakel’s comments to other students at the Elan School in Maine, especially his boast to one youth that “I’m going to get away with murder. I’m a Kennedy.”

But Benedict’s greatest coup was using a lengthy interview Skakel gave in 1997 to author Richard Hoffman for a proposed book on his life. At times breaking down the tape transcript almost sentence by sentence and displaying the highlighted sections in court with pictures of Martha, including those from the crime scene, he effectively tied the defendant to the victim. At one point Skakel had told Hoffman that the morning after the murder, but before Martha’s body had been found, he had felt “panic” at greeting Dorthy Moxley at his house. “Is that the Freudian slip of all ages?” Benedict asked the jury. “How could the sight of Dorthy Moxley possibly produce a feeling of panic in an innocent person, in a person who had gone to sleep knowing nothing of Martha Moxley’s murder?” Even for a seasoned observer like Toobin, the summation was a revelation. “Benedict pointed out things in the evidence that I certainly missed,” he says. “It was breathtaking.”

Benedict’s performance had the desired effect on the jury of six men and six women. On the first day of deliberations, nine of the jurors were already prepared to vote guilty, with only three undecided. Over the next three days they calmly went through the evidence, until the last of the holdouts, including jury foreman Kevin Cambra, 38, a business executive, embraced Benedict’s version. “His summary connected all the dots,” says Cambra. “I feel very confident that we made the right decision.” To be sure, Skakel’s family and defense team, led by attorney Mickey Sherman, felt otherwise. Michael’s brother David, 38, called the verdict a “witch hunt,” and Sherman vowed to mount a vigorous appeal. Family members say that Skakel is particularly distraught that he will be separated from his 3-year-old son, George, who will now be raised solely by ex-wife Margot, the boy’s mother.

When he is sentenced on July 19, Michael Skakel could get anywhere from 10 years to life. Martha’s brother John, 43, believes that a fair sentence should be at least 27 years, the time it took the case to come to a resolution. Whatever the punishment, Dorthy believes that at last justice will have been done, that someone will have been held accountable for the murder of her daughter. Not that it gives her any pleasure. “It’s not a happy occasion,” she says. “I know the right thing was done, but it is so sad. The whole thing is so sad.”

Bill Hewitt

Diane Herbst and Fannie Weinstein in Norwalk

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