Winter 02


Asterisk: The Sin of Michael Skakel




     June 17, 1950: Ethel Skakel married Robert F. Kennedy at St. Mary's Church in Greenwich, Connecticut..
     September 19, 1960: Ethel Skakel Kennedy’s sister-in-law, Anne Skakel, gave birth to her fifth child, Michael—who, like her other children, was born with an asterisk. He was, is, and shall always remain, “*a Kennedy” or, “*one of the Kennedy cousins.”
     Alea iacta est.
     October 30, 1975: It was “mischief night,” a time for pranks and hell-raising in the gated Belle Haven enclave of Greenwich. That evening, fifteen-year-old Martha Moxley and friends headed for the Skakel home where another group of teens had gathered after dinner and drinks at the Belle Haven Club. Accounts of the evening’s activities differ, and some have changed over time—but one fact remains: sometime after nine-thirty that night, Martha Moxley was beaten to death with a golf club.
     For the next twenty-seven years, a question hovered in the rarefied air over the yacht clubs and golf courses of the Connecticut community: Who killed Martha Moxley?
     June 7, 2002: A Stamford, Connecticut, jury convicted Michael Skakel of Martha Moxley’s murder. The prosecution offered no physical evidence, and called no one to the stand who had witnessed the murder.
     With the single exception of the person who swung the six iron, no one knows who killed Martha Moxley.
     Prosecutor Jonathan Benedict argued Skakel’s guilt. Defense attorney Mickey Sherman stated his firm belief that his client is innocent of the crime. Neither man knows who killed Martha Moxley.
     Henry Lee, considered the world’s leading forensic scientist, examined case evidence, reports, and photographs years after the murder. Lee does not know who killed Martha Moxley.
     Nor does Michael Skakel know who killed Martha Moxley. By all accounts, the then slightly-built teen was at least drunk and probably stoned that night. If he somehow mustered the coordination required to commit a blitz assault (an autopsy revealed no defensive wounds on the body, no human tissue beneath her fingernails) on the athletic young woman, he lacked the requisite cognitive dexterity for memory.
     In the twenty-seven years between the murder and the trial, media junkies built a cottage industry around the case.
     Dominick Dunne, name-dropper and Truman Capote impersonator, says he based his novel, A Season in Purgatory, on the Moxley Murder — but the members of Dunne's fictional Bradley family resemble the Kennedys, not the Skakels. Dunne says he's confident Michael Skakel’s conviction will not be overturned on appeal. Dominick Dunne can tell you who attended the trial and what they were wearing, but he does not know who killed Martha Moxley.
     Mark Fuhrman, who pleaded nolo contendere to perjury committed during the O.J. Simpson trial, says he conducted his own case investigation and wrote a book (Murder in Greenwich) based on the results of that investigation. This past November, USA Network broadcast a TV-movie version of the Fuhrman book under the banner of “Dominick Dunne Presents.” Fuhrman, whose taped remarks to screenwriter Cynthia McKinny described in unfortunate language his approach to enforcing the law while serving on the LAPD, does not know who killed Martha Moxley.
     Literary agent Lucianne Goldberg—a friend of Dominick Dunne—represented Fuhrman’s book on the Simpson case, Murder in Brentwood. Her resume includes a stint as a Nixon administration dirty trickster hired by CREEP’s Murray Chotiner to infiltrate the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign. More recently, she advised Linda Tripp to tape record phone conversations between Tripp and Monica Lewinsky as right-wing adherents sought to deep-six the Clinton presidency. Goldberg does not know who killed Martha Moxley.
     These partisans often referred to Clinton, or any other of their myriad political enemies, as “a Kennedy liberal” (a failing of the highest order in some circles). Thus, even the most newly-spawned generation of conservative muckrakers happily include any remaining Kennedys (or *Kennedys) in their assault on liberalism.
     We will return to the asterisk in a moment, but first let's examine the murder.
     A thorough and effective investigation does not begin with suspects, nor does it begin with theories of motive or motivation. Initially, the best investigators focus on the evidence.
     The Moxley autopsy report prepared by Dr. Elliot M. Gross indicates that the victim suffered thirteen (this number changes to nine or ten in court testimony) blunt-object blows to the head and neck. Many of the wounds were crescent-shaped, consistent with indentations that might be made with the business end of a six iron. Three of the blows to the back of her head fractured Moxley’s skull and violated the brain. As she lay dying in her yard, her killer stabbed her multiple times through the neck, probably with the golf club’s handle.
     Moxley’s body was found shortly after noon on October 31, the day after Mischief Night. She lay face down with her jeans and panties pulled below her knees. Her body had been dragged nearly thirty yards across the Moxley property. A large pool of blood in one location, and segments of a shattered golf club in another, scarred the grass. Toward the center of the front lawn, police found the bloodstained head of a Toney Penna six iron.
     That this was an assault in transit, a crime scene with multiple discrete locations in the yard, is immediately apparent. The first blow, probably to the back of the head, was not lethal, nor did it render her unconscious. She stumbled forward as she moved away from her attacker, attempting to flee. The blasts to her head and neck came rapidly, breaking her nose and shattering her skull. He beat her until the golf club snapped. She did not expect to be hit, and had no opportunity to raise her arms to ward off the blows. Near an elm tree in her yard, the site where most of the blood was found, is where Martha Moxley went down. The attack had not ended. Her killer yanked down her jeans and panties and stood over her, continuing to beat her. He did not stop until he had plunged the broken shaft into her throat again and again. Finally, the killer dragged the teenager's body across the lawn where he left her under a pine tree.
     The choreography of every homicide is unique unto itself. Martha Moxley could have been walking home, running away from someone, standing and talking with someone, embracing and kissing someone, or standing alone in her yard, breathing the chill night air. Her killer could have been walking her home, chasing her, talking with her, kissing her, or watching her from the darkness.
     The golf club originated in the Skakel home. Did the killer take it with him to appear cool, using it as a fashion accessory, as a cane or walking stick? Did he grab it and run after her? Did he select it and lie in wait for her to walk across the lawn?
     Was the trigger for his violence an event or series of events in the past, an exchange earlier that evening, their dialogue at that moment, or was it an internal monologue, a script written in his head?
     Martha Moxley was vivacious, an extrovert, a flirt. She loved boys. Boys loved her back. She knew how to rebuff an unwanted advance. On Mischief Night in Belle Haven, one male refused to accept her rebuff.
     Police attention immediately focused on Thomas Skakel, seventeen, the last person known to have seen Martha Moxley alive. Later, the focus shifted to twenty-three-year-old Kenneth Littleton whose first day on the job as the Skakel family's tutor coincided with the last day Martha Moxley was seen alive. Littleton escorted the Skakel group that enjoyed drinks and dinner at the Belle Haven Club that night, but the investigation of Kenneth Littleton proceeded exactly as far as the rest of the investigation: nowhere. The golf club’s grip was never found. No one confessed. Time passed.
     In 1991, while covering the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith for Vanity Fair, Dominick Dunne says he heard a rumor. Smith, the gossip went, had been visiting the Skakels the night of Martha Moxley’s murder. He was fourteen at the time. Although false, the rumor is generally credited with reigniting interest in the Moxley case.
     The alleged rape occurred over Easter weekend 1991. The Greenwich Police Department announced its reinvestigation of the Moxley case on April 30, 1991. Smith’s trial concluded with his acquittal in December 1991. It would seem, then, that the unfounded rumor tying Smith (a *Kennedy) to the Moxley case had little or nothing to do with the reinvestigation of the 1975 homicide—but perhaps it was of some value to Dunne as he marketed his novel, A Season in Purgatory, little more than a year after Smith’s trial.
     It was also 1991 when Rushton Skakel, Sr., commissioned his own investigation of the murder. He retained the Long Island private investigation firm, Sutton Associates. Dunne says he obtained the Sutton Report in 1995 or 1996. According to the Cape Cod Times, Lucianne Goldberg contacted her friend Dunne at about that same time, seeking a new project for her client, Mark Fuhrman. Although Dunne professed to loathe Fuhrman’s performance at the Simpson trial, he admired the detective’s cop skills, and the two became friends. Dunne gave Fuhrman a copy of the Sutton Report. Fuhrman also somehow obtained a copy of Michael Skakel’s confidential book proposal. He made use of these windfalls to produce Murder in Greenwich, which was published in 1998.
     Fuhrman (a “great, great detective” according to Dunne) maintains that he conducted his own investigation of the murder and concluded that Michael Skakel killed Martha Moxley. Fuhrman bridles at the notion that his book was not a decisive issue in the state’s arrest, trial, and conviction in the case.
     The gospel according to Mark Fuhrman: Michael Skakel had the hots for Martha Moxley. His brother Thomas, however, had rounded first base and was heading for second with their sexy neighbor. Jealous and enraged, Michael beat the young woman to death with a golf club. Then he left her. Then he returned, about a half hour later. Martha was not yet dead, so he plunged the golf club handle through her throat.
     The Sutton Report documents Michael Skakel’s conflicting statements and concludes that he lied. The report makes the same assertion about Thomas Skakel, and indicates that Kenneth Littleton, the Skakel's tutor, lied or withheld information. The number of potential suspects mounts, but Fuhrman maintains his focus on Michael because of Michael’s “big mouth.” Fuhrman refers to statements Michael Skakel allegedly made about being a *Kennedy and getting away with murder.
     Mark Fuhrman knows a great deal about lying. All his testimony in the Simpson trial was tainted by his perjury. If Michael Skakel is a liar, how does anyone divine which of his statements are true and which are false? Selectivity is not a reliable option here. Did Skakel leave his house at nine-thirty PM to hang out at his cousin’s? Or did he kill Martha Moxley near ten PM and set off the neighborhood dogs? Or did he return from his cousin’s at eleven PM, then go out looking for the girl (and if so, what caused the dogs to bark at ten?)? Did he kill her at ten PM, then climb a tree outside her window after eleven and jerk off? Did he tell one Elan student he had killed her and would get away with it because he was a *Kennedy, then tell another he was so blitzed that night he did not remember what he had done? To choose one from column A, none from column B, and two from column C may be an excellent way to order Chinese takeout, but it is not acceptable criminal procedure.
     The large pool of blood, three to four feet across, fueled suspicion that the killer left the scene, then returned a half hour later. Finding Martha Moxley still alive, the theory goes, he plunged the jagged golf club shaft through her neck, then dragged her body to a distant corner of the property and attempted to conceal it in the brush.
     As long as the heart beats, blood flows from open wounds. When the heart stops beating, blood drainage continues until clotting takes place, or until there is no more blood to yield to gravity. With the passage of a half hour, and a pool of blood of that size, Martha Moxley would have been dead from exsanguination. The half-hour interlude is a convenience, but it is not supported by the evidence.
     What did happen? This was a blitz assault from behind. The young woman stumbled forward, trying to evade her attacker, then went down and lost consciousness. He continued beating her. When the golf club shaft broke a final time, he plunged the jagged handle through her throat. She bled during the entire time of the assault—one minute? two? five? — and blood continued to flow until her heart stopped. He did not leave the scene. He surveyed what he had done, gazed quickly at the dim glow from the street light, grabbed his victim’s legs and dragged her deeper into darkness.
     This was a crime of connected moments without interludes. It was also a crime of real or fantasized intimacy. In the first uncertain moment of this dance, Martha Moxley’s killer wanted her. The feeling was overwhelming. Never before had he wanted anything so completely, so intensely. Perhaps she laughed at him, or was angry with him, shrugged him off and moved away. None of that can be known for sure, but there was nothing uncertain about the electric rage that surged within him, the tightness in his body, the pressure behind his eyes, his reflexive rigid grip on the golf club. He would own her. He would humiliate her. He would destroy her.
     The list of suspects is long. The arguments supporting your favorite suspect may be cogent, even clever, but you do not know who killed Martha Moxley.
     Why Michael Skakel? The statements of Gregory Coleman—a former Elan student and active heroin addict—surfaced in 1998. These were sufficient to fuel the sputtering police investigation. Other former Elan students offered their tales. Then Mark Fuhrman’s book appeared in 1998. This (with its intensive marketing effort), and a subsequent media blitz headlining the *Kennedy cousin as the suspect, were sufficient to fuel public opinion. Michael Skakel was arrested in January, 2000.
     Without the asterisk there would have been no swell of indignation, no tailored role among the rich for Dominick Dunne, nothing worthy of Mark Fuhrman’s investigative stealth, and nothing to titillate Lucianne Goldberg’s love of liberal bashing. The murder would have been just another cold case, much like that of thirteen-year-old Matthew Margolies, dubbed “the other Greenwich murder.” To demand media attention and money, a murder must have celebrity status. Any Skakel (*Kennedy) in the role of perp would do, and Michael was the most convenient.
     Criminal justice in prime time sells product. It also subverts itself. When the satellite dishes park in front of the court house, justice is no longer blind. The Dunne-Fuhrman show in Stamford was six years in the making, including four years of promotion. Those who expressed shock at the guilty verdict paid no attention to the run-up. The preview photos were not of a slender fifteen-year-old wimp accused of a twenty-seven-year-old murder; the graphics were of a paunchy, wrinkled *Kennedy in his forties, complete with an alcoholic’s bulbous nose. It was a no-brainer to imagine the fat dude bashing in a kid’s head. Add the asterisk, with its demons from Chappaquiddick (another of Lucianne Goldberg’s clients, Leo Damore, penned Senatorial Privilege:The Chappaquiddick Cover-up, published by right-wing Regnery Press which also published Fuhrman’s Murder in Brentwood), and any factual information that reared its ugly head was quickly shoved aside. The goal was not closure for the dead girl’s family. The verdict triggered only an orgiastic outpouring of vengeful glee. The hunters had brought down prized game, a trophy, the head of a *Kennedy to hang over the mantel.
     The media junkies continue to truck their bucks to the bank. In addition to his books and movie, Mark Fuhrman commands between seven and twelve thousand dollars per speaking engagement. Not too shabby for a convicted felon.
     Rumors continue to surface. Dominick Dunne told Larry King about a conversation with a man “who must remain anonymous but was certainly telling me the truth.” Four people were involved in moving Martha Moxley’s body and cleaning up—washing and bleaching bloody clothes—Dunne reported.
     Fuhrman and Dunne, apparently, are now skilled arbiters of truth.
     And so it goes.
     The state has added a number after the asterisk. Michael Skakel sits in Connecticut’s Garner Correctional Institution pending the outcome of his appeal. When his conviction is overturned, as it most certainly will be, Skakel’s life will be trash. A retrial is unlikely.
     Those who profited from the court’s finding of guilt will continue to cash their royalty checks. True believers will continue to tout Skakel’s guilt.
     Justice will not have been served. The question that haunted Greenwich for more than a quarter of a century will resume its ghostly whisper.
     Who killed Martha Moxley?


John Philpin, one of the first independent criminal profilers in the United States, is a retired forensic psychologist with an international reputation as an expert on violent behavior. For twenty-five years, Philpin's advice has been sought by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Published work includes: Beyond Murder (with John Donnelly, NAL/Dutton, 1994), the inside story of the Gainesville student murders. Stalemate (Bantam, 1997), a true story of child abduction and murder in the San Francisco Bay Area—which was featured on the ABC series Vanished in February, 2002. The Prettiest Feathers (with Patricia Sierra, Bantam, 1997; Ullstein, 1998; Albin Michel, 1999), a psychological thriller. Tunnel of Night (with Patricia Sierra, Bantam, 1999; Ullstein 1999; Albin Michel, 2000), a sequel to The Prettiest Feathers. Dreams in the Key of Blue (Bantam, 2000), a novel. The Murder Channel (Bantam, 2001), a novel. JD (with Patricia Sierra, an e-book to be available in December 2002), a novel. Philpin's forensic work was featured in Philip Ginsburg's book, Shadow of Death. He has appeared on Unsolved Mysteries, The Geoff Metcalf Show, Inside Edition, The Jim Bohannon Show, America's Most Wanted, Chronicle, Northwest Afternoon, 20/20 Downtown, the CBC's As It Happens, and served as guest commentator on Court TV's Prime Time Justice. The recipient of numerous awards recognizing his contributions to murder investigations, Philpin holds degrees in English, clinical psychology, and forensic psychology from Harvard, Goddard, and Columbia Pacific. Visit his website at