Connecticut Court Opens "Juvenile" Arraignment of Michael Skakel in 25-Year-Old Moxley Murder Case

March 1, 2000 Published Work

This article first published in the Libel Defense Conter's LDRC LibelLetter, March 2000. Reprinted with permission.

In a First Amendment case of first impression in Connecticut, a Connecticut Juvenile Court (Dennis, J.) held that the public had a right to attend the juvenile proceedings against Michael Skakel for the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley in Greenwich. In re Michael S., No. DL00-01028 (Conn. Juv. Ct, March 10, 2000).

The publishers of five newspapers-The Advocate of Stamford, the Greenwich Time, The Hartford Courant, The New York Times, and Newsday and the Associated Press had sought access to the juvenile arraignment and subsequent proceedings, following a firestorm of public interest that arose when the State of Connecticut announced an arrest in the twenty-five-year-old murder case. The Moxley murder has long been a matter of great national concern, having inspired at least three books, one miniseries and a web site. Though the State did not name Skakel as the subject of the January 2000 juvenile charge, Skakel's attorney, Michael Sherman, announced publicly that Skakel had been arrested for the murder.

Because Skakel was only fifteen years old at the time of the crime, Connecticut law requires him to be tried in Juvenile Court, which traditionally has closed its proceedings to the public in order to safeguard young offenders from publicity that could interfere with the system's rehabilitative goals. In their Motion for Access, the Movants argued that this concern did not apply to the Skakel proceeding since Skakel, now thirty-nine years old, was no longer a child.

Movants further argued that Connecticut law authorized - and the First Amendment required - the Juvenile Court to allow them to attend the proceedings. Under Connecticut law, Juvenile Court judges are required to exclude from the courtroom all persons who, "in the court's opinion, [are]not necessary." While no Connecticut court had interpreted the meaning of this provision, Movants argued that courts in other contexts had interpreted the meaning of "necessary" to vary with the circumstances. Drawing on United States Supreme Court's jurisprudence on access to judicial proceedings, including Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 488 U.S. 555 (1980), and Press -Enterprise Co. v. Superior Ct., 478 U.S. 1 (1986), Movants argued that press attendance at the arraignment and further proceedings was "necessary" to vindicate the First Amendment values at stake and the public's intense interest in the case, especially since Skakel himself had already availed himself of press coverage.

In its decision, the Juvenile Court noted that while "public proceedings in the juvenile context generally would be inconsistent with and undermine the rehabilitative purpose" of the juvenile system, Skakel's age and his consent to an open proceeding rendered those concerns inapplicable. Significantly, the Court stressed the "positive role of public access to juvenile proceedings," and cited with approval a recent federal appellate decision holding that the public interests in open criminal proceedings are "present and equally cogent" in juvenile proceedings. United States v. A.D., 28 F.3d 1353, 1358 (3d Cir. 1994). Interpreting the Connecticut statute to call for a balancing of the need to protect juveniles with the need for public awareness of juvenile proceedings, the Court held that, on the facts of the instant case, "Movants...appear to be necessary parties or persons so that they may assist in the goal of informing the public."

A subordinate issue raised at the oral argument on Movant's Access Motion and later briefed by Movants was whether the Court could, consistent with First Amendment jurisprudence, open the proceedings to the press but not the public. Movants argued that the case law suggested no distinction between the press and the public from a First Amendment standpoint, but that the leading decisions did acknowledge that practical realities - such as size of the courtroom - could lead the Court to give priority to the media or to admit only members of the media as surrogates of the public. The Court held that, in light of these practical considerations, members of the media will have priority access to the proceedings, with the general public "allowed to attend as space is available."

David B. Fein is a partner in the Stamford office of Wiggin & Dana. Fein and Kenneth D. Health, an associate with the firm, represented the media in the motion for access.