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Ghosts come back to haunt Kennedys

Scandals past and present were dragged up in court during the murder trial of Michael Skakel last week, writes Orla Healy...

Scandals past and present were dragged up in court during the murder trial of Michael Skakel last week, writes Orla Healy

KENNEDY scandals past and present converged in a Connecticut courtroom last Thursday, where Michael Skakel, the nephew of Ethel Kennedy, is on trial for the 1975 murder of his teenage neighbour Martha Moxley.

A hush fell over the court when 24-year-old Marissa Verrochi was ushered to the stand. She is the former baby-sitter who allegedly, in 1992 at age 14, became involved in an illicit sexual affair with the late Michael Kennedy, a neighbour whose children she tended and a cousin of the accused. The relationship reportedly ended in 1996 when she went to college.

On Thursday, Verrochi testified in the defence of Skakel, rebutting previous testimony from Geranne Ridge who said she and Verrochi had been present at a 1997 party during which Skakel allegedly told guests in jest: "Ask me why I killed my neighbour".

Verrochi testified she was living with Ridge for several weeks in 1997, but emphatically denied attending any party where she, Ridge and Skakel all were present.

Ridge had testified earlier last week that she came home to her South Boston condo to find a bunch of Verrochi's friends there, including Skakel. In relation to the Skakel's alleged comment Ridge said: "It was a little bit too much to handle".

Whisked into Norwalk's Superior Court by a public relations posse, Verrochi was clearly nervous. Now living in Florida, she testified that she was a close friend of Skakel's and that they were in frequent contact in 1997, but that she hasn't seen him in more than a year. She said she met Skakel through Kennedy, for whom Skakel was working as a driver in 1994, and that Skakel supported her when news of her relationship with Kennedy made headlines in 1997.

Ironically, some Kennedy family members believe it was Skakel who blew the whistle and made the affair public, causing a massive scandal after which Kennedy's wife Victoria filed for divorce. Michael was killed in a Colorado skiing accident a few weeks later.

Skakel is believed to have further strained family relations when he agreed to be interviewed by Norfolk DA, Jeffrey Locke, in connection with the underage sex allegations. Verrochi's family, who are friendly with the Kennedys, did not co-operate with authorities and no charges were ever filed.

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Trying to highlight Verrochi's loyalty to Skakel, prosecutor Jonathan Benedict briefly cross-examined her to stress upon jurors how Skakel comforted her during the scandal.

"He protected you from the situation?" Benedict asked. "Sure," she replied.

No mention was made of another aspect of Ridge's testimony dealing with what she called the "paradox" that Skakel was suspected of killing one attractive 15-year-old girl, and then years later came to the rescue of another.

After her brief but intense testimony which put before jurors some of the Kennedy connections they're supposed to ignore Verrochi donned sunglasses and hurriedly left the courthouse, pursued by reporters and news photographers.

Verrochi's testimony was part of the three-pronged attack Skakel's defence team launched when it took the case on Tuesday: bringing on witnesses to contradict early prosecution witnesses, bolstering what they claim to be Skakel's alibi and painting a brutal picture of life at the school where Michael allegedly confessed to the murder.

On Monday, just before the prosecution rested its case, two witnesses put Michael at the scene of the crime. Andrew Pugh, Michael's then best friend, and another pal, Michael Meredith testified that in separate conversations Michael told them he was in a tree on the Moxley property, trying to peep into Martha's bedroom, the night of the murder. Both said Michael had denied killing Martha, but said he had admitted to masturbating in the tree on the night of her death. Meredith added that Michael told him he ran home after seeing his older brother, Thomas initially a prime suspect in this case walking toward the Moxley home.

To cement Skakel's alibi, that he was at the home of his cousin 20 minutes' drive from the scene of the crime at the time of the murder, the defence put the cousin, James Dowdle and Michael's brother, Rushton Jr, on the stand Wednesday. They testified they were with Michael watching Monty Python's Flying Circus from 10pm to 10:30pm. Another cousin, Georgeanne Skakel Dowdle appeared to confirm their story, but under cross-examination, admitted she hadn't actually laid eyes on Michael. In fact, all three Skakel relatives testified they could recall almost nothing about the night of the killing aside from a few facts supporting Michael's alibi. Not one, for instance, could recall with whom they ate dinner that night.

The most severe damage to the prosecution's case, however, came Thursday and Friday when former students of the Elan substance abuse centre, where Michael spent time in the '70s, refuted testimony by prosecution witnesses that Skakel had confessed to the murder while in rehab.

In an ill-fated book proposal which jurors heard about Monday, Skakel described being physically carried off to Elan on his father's orders after he got drunk at age 17 and led police on a car chase that ended in a crash. Defence attorney Michael Sherman described the school as a "hell hole" and argued any admissions made by Michael there had been beaten out of him. Among the former Elan residents who testified on behalf of the defence about the confrontational tactics used on Skakel was Sarah Petersen. She compellingly explained how the brutal treatment Michael received at the school might have influenced his statements about Moxley's murder.

He stopped his initial denials of his involvement, she said, only after he was repeatedly beaten in a boxing ring. "The only time that he said he couldn't remember was after long hours of torture," Peterson testified. She also said she heard Elan director Joe Ricci tell Skakel on at least a dozen occasions: "You're not getting out of here until you ''fess up'".

Petersen called into question the credibility of one of the key prosecution witnesses, John Higgins who had testified that he heard Skakel confess one night while the two were sitting on a dormitory porch. Petersen said Higgins cannot be trusted. "I found him to be a mean-spirited person who really enjoyed seeing what kind of trouble he could cause in your life he seemed to really like making Michael Skakel's life miserable." Petersen was just one of many former residents who told their own tales of being beaten or humiliated into making admissions to things they hadn't done. She became quite emotional when describing how, in the face of people screaming at her, she admitted she was "a whore and a slut", even though she was a virgin, "because I wanted them to leave me alone". Donna Kavanah, who is white, testified she was spanked with a wooden paddle for almost two hours before she admitted to "acting black". Sherman asked her what that meant. "I don't know," Kavanah said. "I don't understand it to this day."

Such stories would be too incredible to believe if there weren't more like it. But there are plenty of similar, harrowing tales posted on various web sites run by self-described "Elan survivors". The website for Elan School describes the modern-day facility as "a carefully conceptualised, caringly administered residential community, designed to help adolescents permanently change attitudes and life patterns, teaching them to live effectively in the mainstream of life". It also features a photo album of smiling residents fishing, sailing and frolicking in the waves of a Maine shoreline. But, as Angela McFillin, who attended Elan from 1978 to 1980, testified "It was an awful, terrible place. It was like a prison camp. It was worse than a boot camp. It was terrible. It was the worst experience of my life."

Prosecutors contend that, even if the methods at Elan were confrontational, it does not mean that Skakel was not telling truth when he told several people that he either killed Martha or could have killed her, but wasn't sure, because he was drunk and blacked out on the night of October 30, 1975.

Although Elan is not on trial, the facility's tactics, at least during the 1970s, last week became a central issue for jurors who will soon deliberate Skakel's fate. Testimony resumes on Tuesday.

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