A guilty verdict in the Michael Skakel murder case had seemed as improbable as the likelihood that a vivacious teenaged girl could be bludgeoned to death within the confines of a gated Greenwich community.
But as the handcuffs tightened audibly on Skakel's wrists and several of Martha Moxley's childhood friends sobbed softly but uncontrollably, the weight of reality dropped.
The toll was heavy and harsh, the grief fresh.
Skakel, 41, the father of a 3-year-old son, was led off to prison to await his sentencing on July 19 for the 1975 murder of the girl he had a crush on, but who favored his brother and nemesis, Tommy.
Martha was beaten savagely with a golf iron nearly 27 years ago and died at age 15. One needed only to look at the tears streaming down the face of her brother, John Moxley, to be reminded that Friday's verdict cannot erase the loss.
"It's bittersweet," he rasped, moments after Skakel was led from the courtroom. "It's a hollow victory," Moxley said. But, he added, "my heart stopped beating" when jury foreman Kevin Cambra uttered the word "guilty."
Dorthy Moxley, Martha's mother, never flagged in her pursuit of justice and smiled graciously in the face of despair. But when she entered the courtroom Friday morning, as anxious as everyone else that a verdict was near, she appeared sad and deflated.
Her voice quavered as she whispered, "I've decided this is a solemn day," she said. Asked why, she said, "Well, if we win, it's a solemn day for them. And if they win ..."
The verdict brought tears and opened a floodgate of emotions.
"I didn't think this day would ever come," she said. "I just feel so blessed and so overwhelmed. This is Martha's day."
Outside court, several of Skakel's brothers stressed their belief in him and in his innocence, and they vowed to secure his release. David Skakel likened the trial to "a witch hunt."
"We are a family with a bedrock of faith, and our faith has been tested today immeasurably," he said.
Prosecutor Jonathan Benedict, too, is a man of faith. He had faith in his case when many did not, and he poured his convictions into a dramatic closing argument that wove Michael Skakel's own words into the web that caught him.
"It's nice to say, once in a while, that justice delayed doesn't have to be justice denied," Benedict said after the verdict. "Justice can take a long time sometimes, but it's worth the effort.
"When a kid is murdered, it's an easy case to argue. I have felt confident about this case since we completed the grand jury."
Christy Kalan, Martha's close friend through middle school and into high school, wept as soon as the verdict was issued. She was weeping still when the only other people milling about the courtroom were a few reporters and the Skakel defense team - still reeling from the defeat.
"I just never in a million years thought they'd come back with that," Kalan said. "It feels good. It feels really good." A surge of grief, as well as relief, overtook her.
"The 27 years, they suddenly get collapsed," she said. "It's like it was yesterday again. Twenty-seven years is a long time to wait. It's a long time to wait for closure.
"Personally, I feel confident he did it, but I'm not sure I could have come back with that verdict."
The prosecution faced nearly insurmountable odds from the outset, including the age of the case, the inability to fix the time of death any more precisely than within an eight-hour range, the existence of prior suspects, and witnesses with a lot of baggage and flawed recollections.
The defense consisted largely of an alibi that relied heavily on the testimony of Skakel's siblings and cousins. Skakel himself did not testify, but the biggest challenge the defense team faced was Skakel's propensity to chat about the night of the murder.
Skakel's alibi was that he had left his house at about 9:30 p.m. with two of his brothers to drive his cousin, Jimmy Terrien, home. Terrien lived in Greenwich's backcountry, about a 20-minute drive from the Skakels' house. Once there, they testified, they watched "Monty Python's Flying Circus" at 10 p.m. Rushton Skakel Jr. and John Skakel testified that they and Michael returned home shortly after 11 p.m.
The closest the state could fix a time of death was between 9:30 p.m. Oct. 30, 1975 - when Martha was last seen in the Skakels' driveway horsing around with Tommy - and 5:30 a.m. Oct. 31. Defense attorney Mickey Sherman, however, made a convincing argument that the time of death was about 10 p.m., based on one dog in particular that barked incessantly, in an agitated manner, across the street from the Moxley property, where Martha's body was found.
The jurors - six men and six women - told judicial branch spokeswoman Rhonda Stearley-Hebert that they did not want to meet with reporters and comment on the case, and it is not known whether they rejected Skakel's alibi or settled on a later time of death.
"We worked very, very hard to find something that would acquit Michael Skakel," juror Cathy Lazansky of Greenwich said. "We just couldn't."
Another juror, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the verdict was based on "the cumulative effect of all the evidence."
"It was not made based on emotion or anger toward Mr. Skakel or the Moxley family," the juror said.
Although the investigation into Moxley's death lay dormant for years, it was revived in 1991, due in part to a rumor that flared during the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. The rumor, which proved false, was that Smith was at the Skakel home the night of the murder. That ripple sparked renewed interest in the Moxley case and prompted noted forensic scientist Henry Lee to reconstruct the crime.
It was at this time that Skakel family lawyers hired Sutton Associates, a private detective agency, to conduct its own investigation in an effort to clear the family's name.
The agency's final report, which was leaked to the press, showed Michael Skakel had changed his story. Where once he had said he returned from his cousins' house, went to bed and did not venture out again, now he said he did leave his house, climbed a tree on the Moxley property and masturbated. He told this same story to several friends during the same time period, which coincided with the crime-scene reconstruction.
In 1975, DNA analysis was unheard of. By 1991, it had been embraced as a crime-solving tool. And although Moxley had not been raped, her assailant would know what bloody smears inside her thighs indicated to investigators - that there were some sexual overtones to the crime. Skakel in his adult years talking about masturbating in a tree the night of the murder may have been his attempt to explain any semen detected at the crime scene. He didn't know that none was.
It's not clear what weight, if any, jurors placed on the alleged admissions to the crime Skakel made while at the Elan School in Maine in the late 1970s. Testimony about the school and its controversial methods of behavior modification dominated much of the trial, with Sherman attempting to destroy the credibility of Skakel's Elan witnesses. Sherman also emphasized that Skakel denied any involvement in the crime until he was pummeled repeatedly in a boxing ring and ultimately switched to saying "I don't know" to stop the beating.
Sherman said he was "bitterly disappointed" with the verdict.
"This is not over," he vowed, adding that he would do whatever it takes to secure Skakel's freedom. His efforts to do so Friday fell flat.
Sherman argued Skakel should be allowed to remain free on the $500,000 bond he'd already posted in the case, pending outcome of his appeal. Judge John F. Kavanewsky Jr. refused that request, and ordered Skakel taken into custody immediately. Skakel was taken to the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, where he is expected to remain until his sentencing. Because the crime was committed in 1975, Kavanewsky is required to follow the sentencing scheme in effect at that time. Skakel faces a minimum sentence range of 10 to 25 years and a maximum range of 25 years to life.
Even though Skakel was 39 at the time of his arrest, he was first presented in juvenile court because he was 15 at the time the crime occurred. Had he remained in that court, the maximum sentence he would have faced was four years, but because no juvenile facility would be appropriate for him, he likely would have served no time. Skakel was transferred to adult court, however, after Judge Maureen Dennis found the Elan witnesses against him to be credible.
After the jurors were polled individually about their verdict but before they left the courtroom, Kavanewsky asked the lawyers if there was anything else they wished to say.
Suddenly, Skakel's voice was heard.
"I'd like to say something," he said.
"No,"' Kavanewsky said firmly.
Sherman later said Skakel just wanted the opportunity to profess his innocence.
"Michael just wanted to indicate he is innocent," Sherman said. "He wanted the world to know it. Michael was very prepared for this."
Sherman said the first injustice was the "bogus" ruling that transferred the case to adult court. He also questioned the crime-scene photos projected by the prosecution onto a large screen in the courtroom.
"I think a lot of this case was based on shock," Sherman said, with the photos designed to inflame the jury and appease the Moxleys, particularly Dorthy, with a guilty verdict. "You don't offer up the carcass of Michael Skakel to make her feel good."
The jury, over the course of 15 days, heard from 38 prosecution witnesses and 15 defense witnesses, including four of Skakel's siblings, his father and two of his cousins.
No arrest was made in the Moxley murder case until Skakel was charged in January 2000, but investigators had honed in on two other suspects in the preceding decades.
It was revealed for the first time during the trial that then-Greenwich police Capt. Thomas Keegan in May of 1976 - seven months after the slaying - applied for a warrant to arrest Skakel's older brother Tommy for murder. Prosecutors wouldn't even sign off on the application, considering the evidence it contained weak.
In the warrant application, Keegan linked the murder weapon to the Skakel family and noted that Tommy was among the last to see Martha alive and that at first he had denied pushing and jostling with her in the Skakel driveway at around 9:30 the night she was killed. Keegan stated in the application "that a check of the medical and psychological records of Thomas Skakel revealed that he had suffered a skull fracture at age four, and as a result suffered from frequent and quite sudden outbursts of severe physical violence, incontinence and threats against siblings."
The second suspect who was sporadically dogged by investigators into the early 1990s was Kenneth Littleton, the most tragic figure to emerge during the trial. He was a teacher and coach at the Brunswick School in Greenwich and was on his first day of work with the Skakel family when Martha was killed.
Although, he testified, he never met or even saw Martha, he was subjected to numerous police interviews, polygraphs and, finally, several grueling days on the witness stand here. He became an alcoholic and substance abuser in the years after the murder, and in the mid-1980s was diagnosed as manic-depressive.
Inspectors Jack Solomon and Frank Garr in 1991 and 1992 convinced Littleton's ex-wife, Mary Baker, to secretly tape-record conversations with him and attempt to lure a confession from him, to no avail. But Baker baited Littleton with admissions he allegedly made during an alcoholic stupor, and Littleton eventually made a quasi-admission to the crime that haunted him through to the trial, even though he had been granted immunity from prosecution during the grand jury investigation in 1998.
Ironically, it is Littleton who provided the alibi that helped clear Tommy Skakel of suspicion, saying Tommy came into the room he had been assigned at the Skakel home and was watching the chase scene of "The French Connection" with him that night. While that doesn't cover the entire time frame in which the slaying could have occurred, Littleton testified Tommy was composed and neatly attired, which the killer would not have been after such a gruesome and violent assault.
For additional coverage of the case and complete transcripts of the closing arguments, see ctnow.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times