Leonard Levitt op-ed: Journalist deconstructs Kennedy’s claim Skakel was ‘Framed’

By Leonard Levitt

In his recently published book, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. maintains that his cousin, Michael Skakel, was “framed” for the murder of his 15-year-old neighbor, Martha Moxley, by an incompetent lawyer, a “corrupt” detective and prosecutor, and the media — including this reporter.
Martha was beaten to death in the Belle Haven section of Greenwich on Oct. 30, 1975, with a golf club that came from a set found the next day in the Skakel home. The case has become a 41-year legal odyssey, with no resolution in sight.

But Michael Skakel wasn’t framed, as the title of Kennedy’s book alleges. Instead, perpetuating the basest of racial stereotypes, Kennedy has framed two men, one black, the other of mixed race.

“Kennedy also shows how he tracked down the likely killers, whose presence was detected neither by the police nor the press,” reads his book jacket. Kennedy himself writes: “Using the evidence I have cited in this book, prosecutors have sufficient cause to indict Burton Tinsley and Adolph Hasbrouck for Martha Moxley’s murder.”

Kennedy offers no proof for his claims. The closest he comes is to write that Hasbrouck and Tinsley admitted to him they had been in Belle Haven on the night Martha was murdered.

On BizTalk radio he told host Jim Campbell: “Both of the men, Adolph and Burr, acknowledged on tape that they were there that night.”
On the Phoenix-based radio show “House of Mystery” to publicize his book, he told host Al Warren: “I was able to track those two men down and have conversations with them in which they admitted that they had been in Greenwich that night, and they admitted that they had been in the home of Geoffrey Byrne, the boy who helped them clean off after the murder.”

Those statements are lies.

According to court documents, Kennedy secretly recorded Hasbrouck and Tinsley in separate telephone conversations in 2003, the year after Michael’s conviction. But no such admissions appeared on either recording, transcripts of which were made available to me.

At a 2007 hearing seeking a new trial, based on Kennedy’s claims, Michael’s lawyers never offered any admissions as new evidence, a further indication there were none.

Byrne, who Kennedy claims helped Hasbrouck and Tinsley “clean off after the murder,” died a few years after the murder.
Kennedy’s source for his allegations is Gitano (Tony) Bryant, who Kennedy describes in his book as a first cousin to basketball star Kobe Bryant. Last year, Gitano Bryant pleaded guilty in Virginia to under-reporting millions of dollars in his tobacco importing company, resulting in a $6 million tax liability. In 1993 he was convicted of participating in an armed robbery/home invasion in California in which he claimed to have been kidnapped. He was later fired by a Texas law firm after his employers discovered Bryant never passed the bar, as he had claimed.

In 2007, Connecticut Judge Edward Karazin denied Michael’s motion for a new trial, concluding that Bryant’s claims “lacked credibility” and are “absent any genuine corroboration.”

In 2013, as Michael again sought a new trial, claiming his lawyer, Mickey Sherman, had been incompetent, Judge Thomas Bishop found Bryant’s “trail of deceit would likely erode any confidence in Bryant’s credibility.”

However, Bishop ruled Sherman failed his client and granted Michael a new trial. Prosecutors have appealed his decision to Connecticut’s highest court, which is expected to rule in the next few months. Meanwhile, Michael has been released from prison, where he served 11 years.
Bryant came to Kennedy’s notice after Kennedy wrote an article in 2003 in Atlantic Monthly, maintaining Kenneth Littleton, a tutor who moved into the Skakel house the night of the murder, was a more likely suspect than Michael.

Bryant told Kennedy that he, Hasbrouck and Tinsley, who were schoolmates in the Bronx, New York, had been in Belle Haven the night of the murder and that up to 15 people had seen them. At the 2007 hearing, Kennedy testified he was unable to find anyone to corroborate this.
Bryant also told Kennedy that Hasbrouck, who is black and who Bryant described as 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds at the time of the murder, met Martha at a dance in Greenwich a few months before, although no one but Bryant ever reported seeing them together.

Quoting Bryant, Kennedy writes that Hasbrouck “was obsessed with her beautiful blond hair,” and wanted to go “caveman” on her.
“Adolph and Burr, inebriated and ‘out of control’ began making sexually charged comments to some of the girls,” Kennedy writes about their supposedly being in Belle Haven the night of the murder.

“‘Where are the bitches?’ they were now demanding. ‘We’ve just got to get into something.’”

According to Bryant, a day or two later, the two confessed to him they killed Martha. Kennedy writes, “Adolph boasted, ‘Well, I got mine. We got her caveman style.’”

Bryant, however, refused to repeat his story to Connecticut authorities or to testify under oath at the 2007 hearing. Kennedy justifies his refusal, writing, “Michael’s conviction reinforced Tony’s mistrust of the system and validated his reason for not coming forward.”

Kennedy also wrote that “it became clear to me they (Hasbrouck and Tinsley) had been there that night.” As evidence he mentioned that Byrnes’ relatives “were dead certain that no black person could have visited their house. … I subsequently talked with both Tindel (sic) and Burr, who admitted having been to their house. Both of them (had been there) on at least six occasions and then described the interior of the house and other intricate details.”
“Wouldn’t it have been a little more helpful to determine if they were in Belle Haven on the night of Oct. 30, 1975, if you had ever spoken to somebody who had actually said they’d seen them there?” retorted prosecutor Jonathan Benedict.

Another person who claimed Hasbrouck had been in Belle Haven the night of the murder was Skakel’s private investigator, Vito Colucci. At the 2007 hearing, Colucci testified Hasbrouck admitted this in an interview he conducted with his assistant, Kris Steele, at Hasbrouck’s home in Bridgeport in 2003.

Colucci testified he brought Steele to take notes and “mainly to have a witness.” He testified: “Anytime I do something of any magnitude I try to get it on video or make sure I have somebody with me.”

Colucci acknowledged he did not record his interview with Hasbrouck and that Steele’s report, which was part of the court record, made no mention of any admission.

After he telephoned Hope Seeley, one of Skakel’s lawyers, Colucci testified, Steele wrote a second report that included Hasbrouck’s alleged admission. “Kris left out a few things and I just told him what to do.” Seeley, who is now a judge, declined comment through a Connecticut Judicial Branch spokesperson. Colucci did not respond to an email and telephone call.

According to Hasbrouck’s lawyer, Lawrence Schoenbach, “Hasbrouck’s mother had forbidden him to stay out during a school night, much less go to Greenwich. His mom worked in the 40th precinct in the Bronx. She cracked the whip.” Bryant, who attended the same Greenwich private school as Michael before moving to the Bronx, brought Hasbrouck and Tinsley to Greenwich a few times, said Schoenbach, “but always on weekends.”

Hasbrouck, says Schoenbach, graduated from college, served three years in the army and received an honorable discharge. “He has been married for 25 years. He has a daughter in college. He has been a production assistant at ABC for 15 years. He was a decent kid who became a respectable adult. Imagine 30 years later somebody knocks on your door and says, ‘Did you kill Martha Moxley?’ ”

Of Kennedy’s book, Schoenbach says: “His story was rejected by the courts 10 years ago and is now repackaged. Simply because he puts it in a book and gives it a better veneer makes it no more credible.”

In an interview on NBC’s “Dateline,” Kennedy dared Hasbrouck to sue him for libel. Schoenbach said he would wait until Connecticut’s highest court rules before making a decision.

It would be disingenuous not to mention that Kennedy’s book reflects his animosity toward me as a reporter. In part, I suspect this is because of two articles I wrote. The first, published in The (Stamford) Advocate and Greenwich Time in 1991, led the state of Connecticut to reopen its investigation.
The second was a series of articles, published in Newsday in 1995, that described how Michael and his brother, Tommy, lied to the police about their whereabouts the night of the murder. That led investigators to refocus on the Skakels and away from Littleton, then their primary suspect.

I’ve often wondered why Kennedy has committed himself to Michael’s innocence. I suspect he identifies with Michael’s tragic childhood and early adulthood. Like Kennedy, Michael lost a parent as a child. Like Michael, Kennedy became an alcoholic. He was also a heroin addict. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau fired him and he was disbarred as a lawyer for two years.

But where is it written that a person of privilege and entitlement with a famous name can write lies about innocent people without consequence?

Leonard Levitt was hired by Greenwich Time and The Advocate in the early 1980s to investigate the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley. An article in 1991 helped relaunch the police investigation and led to the 2000 arrest of Michael Skakel. Levitt wrote the book “Conviction” about the Skakel case. A Stamford resident, Levitt runs the website “NYPD Confidential.”


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