SUFFIELD, Conn. – Imprisoned Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel lost a bid for freedom on Wednesday, turned down at his first parole hearing since he was convicted a decade ago of beating his teenage neighbor to death with a golf club and told he would not be eligible again to be considered for release for five years.
Skakel, who proclaimed his innocence at the hearing, nodded, grimaced and patted his attorney on the back as he was led away after the three-person state parole board announced the unanimous decision.
Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, was convicted in 2002 of fatally beating Martha Moxley in Greenwich in 1975, when they were 15. He is serving 20 years to life in prison.
The decision was the latest setback for Skakel, who has lost appeals challenging his conviction. Skakel, whose case has long drawn national attention, has another appeal challenging the work and competency of his trial attorney coming up for trial in the spring. Skakel claims the trial attorney had financial problems and didn't devote enough money to prepare the case, but the attorney insists he did everything he could to keep Skakel from being convicted.
The denial of parole came after Skakel's supporters, including his cousin Robert F. Kennedy Jr., sent letters to the parole board describing him as a model inmate who has touched many lives in a positive way with his artwork and by helping recovering alcoholics and teaching English as a second language to prisoners. The supporters also say he's been devoted to his son despite being in prison.
At the hearing at McDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, Skakel spoke slowly and softly, saying: "I did not commit this crime."
In attendance was the victim's mother, Dorthy Moxley, who said losing a child is the worst thing in the world and Skakel should serve at least 20 years.
"Martha, my baby, will never have a life," she said, her voice breaking.
Skakel told the parole board he prays every day that whoever committed the crime is brought to justice but he is the wrong man. He said his best chance to win parole was to admit guilt.
"If I could ease Mrs. Moxley's pain in any way, manner, shape or form I would take responsibility all day long for this crime," Skakel said.
But, he added, "I cannot bear false witness against myself."
The 52-year-old Skakel, with gray, thinning hair, wore a tan prison jumpsuit to the hearing. To support his claims of innocence, he told of how he became sober.
"I pose to you: How can a guilty man stay sober for 30 years with that kind of guilt on his mind?" he said.
Skakel also talked about his mother's death at an early age, his learning disability and a childhood in which he attended numerous schools. He said his ex-wife was recently diagnosed with cancer and he is concerned about his 13-year-old son.
"I'm at your mercy," Skakel said. "If anything this justice system, this life has taught me I have no power. The only power I have is prayer."
The chair of the parole board, Erika Tindill, said it was an odd situation for him to ask for early release while proclaiming innocence.
Ultimately, she said, the board concluded that the time he has served is not punishment enough for the crime while noting the denial was not based on a risk he would reoffend. Board members praised Skakel for activities in prison and noted he had not been in trouble.
The victim's brother, John Moxley, said during the hearing that he believes Skakel should serve a life sentence. He said Skakel has not shown any remorse.
"There's no upside in this," he said after the hearing. "So what? He's got another five years in prison. What does that do for Martha? It's a hollow victory."
Skakel's attorney, Hope Seeley, said the board's decision is disappointing because Skakel is not a danger to society.
"To incarcerate Michael Skakel for at least another five years compounds the miscarriage of justice that has already occurred in this case," she said.
Many letters in support of Skakel cite his artwork in prison, saying he has made uplifting paintings that show his true nature, give joy to others and encourage family values. Letters objecting to his parole cite the brutal nature of the crime and say releasing him early would be devastating to the victim's family.
Skakel will have another chance to try to get out of prison next April, when his appeal, seeking a new trial, goes to court.
He seemed to be bracing himself at the parole hearing.
"I am resigned to do God's will, whatever that is," he told the board.