NORWALK, Conn. – Jurors in the murder trial of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel are hearing about an uncommon school, a "crazy place" where students wore dunce caps and signs, screamed at each other at dreaded "general meetings" and inflicted beatings in boxing rings.
Prosecutors arrived at a key part of their case this past week, presenting testimony that Skakel allegedly confessed or made incriminating statements while he attended the Elan School in the late 1970s. The school at Poland Spring, Maine, is a substance abuse center for troubled teens.
Skakel, 41, is accused of beating Martha Moxley to death with a golf club in 1975 in wealthy Greenwich. Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, and Moxley were 15-year-old neighbors at the time.
So far, two Elan students have alleged that Skakel confessed. One died last year, so prosecutors read a transcript of his pretrial testimony.
Other former Elan students have said Skakel never admitted killing Moxley but often said he didn't know what happened because he was drinking the night of the murder and may have blacked out. Skakel also suggested that his brother could have committed the murder, according to testimony.
Defense attorneys are challenging the witnesses' credibility and underscoring what they say was harsh treatment at Elan.
"Anything he said has to be understood in the context of the Elan program," said Michael Sherman, Skakel's attorney.
In his opening statement, Sherman promised witnesses who would describe Elan as a "hell hole."
But prosecutors note that the alleged confessions occurred in casual settings — for instance, when only one other student was present.
"Michael's alleged confessions seem to come at times when the madness had let up," said Timothy Dumas, who wrote a book on the murder. "However, the jury might see the totality of the atmosphere at Elan as being one in which you might say anything to get out of some harsh treatment."
Former Elan students described the remote school as an intense environment.
"The structure of the home was to yell and scream to provoke a reaction," testified Charles Seigan, who attended Elan with Skakel. "It was kind of a crazy place."
A "general meeting" was the most frightening disciplinary measure, Seigan said. Such meetings were called when students violated a cardinal rule — such as when Skakel briefly ran away.
Students would be stirred up as if they were at a pep rally. Then the student in question would be dragged into the room and confronted by the others, students said.
The late Joseph Ricci, the school's feared director, often led general meetings. At one, students said, he told them about Skakel's possible involvement in the Moxley murder.
Other Elan students described a boxing ring in which Skakel was forced to fight other students. One student said Skakel had to wear a sign: "Confront me on why I murdered Martha Moxley."
Prosecutors have additional former Elan students on their list of possible witnesses, but it's unclear whether more will be called before prosecutors finish their case this week. They are also expected to call a childhood friend who places Skakel at the crime scene.
Dorthy Moxley, the victim's mother, made a plea Friday for more Elan students to come forward, saying she is convinced others heard Skakel confess.