The courthouse in sleepy Norwalk, Connecticut, sees few high-profile cases, so Judge John Kavanewsky Jr. established special rules to preserve decorum during the trial of Michael Skakel. Martha Moxley, a 15-year-old resident of Greenwich, had been killed in 1975, but it wasn’t until 2002 that Skakel, who was invariably described as a “Kennedy cousin,” faced a jury for her murder. Reporters from around the world filled every seat in the courtroom, and the judge didn’t want the jury distracted by a lot of shuffling about in the audience. So Kavanewsky decreed that no one would be allowed to enter or leave the courtroom except during breaks in the testimony. I was in that courtroom, and I can attest that everyone followed the rules—except one person.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose mother, Ethel, was the sister of Michael Skakel’s father, barged in on his own schedule, while court was in session. Then 48 and tall and handsome, with his family’s distinctive toothy grin, Kennedy drew every eye in the courtroom, including those of the jurors, as he squeezed into a seat near the defense table. Kennedy made this showy gesture of support twice, apparently believing that the judge’s rules didn’t apply to him.
But Kennedy’s advocacy for his cousin went well beyond his visits to the courtroom. Shortly after the jury convicted Skakel, Kennedy wrote an article for The Atlantic protesting the purported unfairness of the verdict. Then, in 2016, Kennedy published Framed: Why Michael Skakel Spent over a Decade in Prison for a Murder He Didn’t Commit. The book became a best-seller and, more importantly, now that Kennedy is running for president, it established a literary—and political—prototype for Kennedy.
In Framed, Kennedy took a complex and unfamiliar subject for most readers—here, a decades-old murder—and presented a tendentious and misleading version of the facts, tailored to his own preconceptions. Worse yet, Kennedy relied on an ugly racial stereotype—about “big, muscular, and tall” nonwhite men—to attempt to pin the murder on two innocent people. Kennedy followed a similar approach in his later books about vaccines and the coronavirus pandemic: using cherry-picked details and bogus insinuations to make a case that his readers, as non-specialists, lacked the expertise to refute. Kennedy’s record on a subject as narrow as the Moxley murder or as broad as epidemiology compels the same conclusion: that he is a fundamentally untrustworthy narrator.
A Terrible Thing
Here are the undisputed facts about what happened on October 30, 1975—a straightforward summary of which you won’t find in Framed’s 288 pages.
Moxley lived with her family across the street from the Skakels in the tony Belle Haven section of Greenwich, on Long Island Sound. The eve of Halloween was known in those parts as “mischief night,” when teenagers would ring doorbells and play pranks such as throwing eggs and toilet-papering houses. The neighborhood was full of kids, and they were out in force that night, running between houses.
Michael, who was also 15 years old, was the fifth of seven Skakel children. At about 9:30 p.m., Martha Moxley and Tommy Skakel, Michael’s 16-year-old brother, had a tryst near a toolshed by her house.
Martha never returned to her bedroom that evening. Her body was found by a tree on the family property the following morning. Her pants and underwear were pulled down, but she had not been sexually assaulted. She had been beaten and stabbed to death, and the murder weapon was found near her body: a six-iron golf club, which was broken into several pieces, with one part missing.
The club matched a set in the mudroom of the Skakel house. The other clubs in the set had a label reading, Mrs. R.W. Skakel, Greenwich CC, Greenwich, Connecticut—Tommy and Michael’s late mother—on the part that was missing from the broken six-iron. As the prosecutor Jonathan Benedict later observed, “The murderer made sure to hide forever the part of the club that said where it came from.”
Immediately after the discovery of Moxley’s body, the local police conducted an investigation, which included interviewing the kids who roamed the neighborhood that night, but the probe stalled without an arrest. Years passed, with the murder unsolved.
Several bizarre turns followed. In 1991, William Kennedy Smith, a Kennedy cousin by another route (his mother was a sister of Robert F. Kennedy Sr.), was acquitted of rape in Florida. A rumor, which turned out to be false, that Smith was at the Skakel house on the night of the Moxley murder prompted renewed interest in the case. In 1993, Dominick Dunne wrote a lightly fictionalized novel based on the Moxley murder, called A Season in Purgatory.
Dunne, in turn, persuaded Mark Fuhrman, the disgraced detective in the 1995 O. J. Simpson trial, to write a nonfiction book about the Moxley murder, which was published as Murder in Greenwich in 1998. The media attention prompted the Greenwich authorities, who had never fully abandoned the case, to reopen it formally, and in 2000, Michael Skakel was charged with Moxley’s murder, a quarter-century after the event.
Kennedy relied on an ugly racial stereotype—about “big, muscular, and tall” nonwhite men—to attempt to pin the murder on two innocent people.
In the original investigation, the lead suspect was Tommy Skakel, who was, after all, the last person known to have been with Moxley. He was also suspected because the killer, by removing part of the golf club, apparently wanted to hide the weapon’s connection to the Skakel family. But after Tommy’s make-out session with Moxley, he watched a movie, The French Connection, with others in the Skakel house.
Another suspect was Ken Littleton, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, who had been hired as a live-in academic tutor to the Skakel children. But he was also among those watching The French Connection on the night of the murder. Moreover, October 30 was Littleton’s first day on the job in Greenwich; he had never before even laid eyes on Martha, much less developed a motive to kill her.
Over the course of the evening, no one noticed anything askew with either Tommy or Littleton—no blood on their clothing, not even any mussed hair, let alone any sign that either one had just beaten someone to death. Both men were also consistent in their denials of any culpability in Moxley’s death.
So if Tommy Skakel or Ken Littleton didn’t kill Martha Moxley, who did? Suspicion fell next on Michael Skakel. Tommy and Michael, so close in age, had a strong sibling rivalry, including for the affections of Moxley, who clearly chose Tommy on the night of her murder. In his initial interviews with the police, Michael acknowledged that he had been drinking during the evening but denied any involvement in Moxley’s death. He said he had been at the Moxley home until around nine p.m. and then went to his cousin James Terrien’s home, several miles away, to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus on television. After the show, around 11 p.m., Michael said he went home and went to bed.
Still, as police began examining Michael’s behavior after the murder, they found that he kept implicating himself. Six months after Moxley’s death, in a conversation with his barber, Michael expressed his rage toward Tommy, saying, “I am going to kill him. Why not? I have killed before.” About six months after that, Michael blurted out to a family handyman and chauffeur, “I have done a terrible thing. You wouldn’t speak to me again if you knew it. I have to kill myself or get out of the country.”
In his later teenage years, Michael’s life took a dark turn. After an arrest for drunk driving, he was sent to a private boarding school for troubled youngsters, called Élan, in rural Maine. Now defunct, Élan subjected students to a horrific kind of tough-love treatment. There, Skakel told a fellow student, “I can get away with anything.” Elaborating, he said that he had bashed a girl’s head in with a golf club and later masturbated on her body. He told another student that he had killed a girl with a golf club. (At the time, neither student knew anything about the Moxley murder, so Michael’s incriminating statements came out of the blue.) To others at Élan, Skakel said he had blacked out on the night of the murder and didn’t really know what happened.
In 1991, in response to the renewed media interest in the case, Rushton Skakel, Michael and Tommy’s father, hired a private investigative firm called Sutton Associates to re-examine the evidence. Rushton’s intent was to uncover facts that would divert suspicion from his children. But when Michael was interviewed, he admitted that he had lied to the police and now provided a very different account of his activities on the night of the murder. In short, Skakel said that he had gone from the Terriens’ back to the Moxley house, where he climbed a tree outside Martha Moxley’s bedroom window and masturbated.
This was important new information, since Skakel now put himself at the murder scene at the approximate time Moxley was killed. (Her precise time of death was never determined.) What of the strange masturbation tale? And why would he say he climbed a tree that, according to the evidence, was too small to be climbed?
At the time of Moxley’s murder, in 1975, the forensic use of DNA evidence did not exist, but it was common by the 90s. Skakel had already told friends that he masturbated on Moxley’s dead body. By 1992, Skakel might have worried that his DNA would be discovered on the clothing that she was wearing when she was killed. Prosecutors later argued that Skakel came up with the tree story to explain his DNA at the scene, if it was ever found. (It was not.)
Later, in 1997, Skakel collaborated with a ghostwriter named Richard Hoffman on an autobiography, which was never published. In tape-recorded interviews with Hoffman, which were played for the jury, Skakel elaborated on his statement to the Sutton investigators, again putting himself at the murder scene at the possible time of Moxley’s death. “I’m a little out of my mind because I am drunk or high,” Skakel said of his feelings on the night of the murder. “Martha likes me. I’ll go get a kiss from Martha. I’ll be bold tonight. You know, the booze gave me courage again.”
At the trial, the prosecution relied on his various admissions as well as witness testimony about Michael’s whereabouts on the night of Moxley’s death. After the jury convicted him of murder, Judge Kavanewsky said, “For the past 25 years or more … the defendant has been living a lie about his guilt.... The defendant has accepted no responsibility; he has expressed no remorse.” Skakel was sentenced to 20 years to life.
A Bewildering Invocation
Robert Kennedy Jr. has long believed that the murders of his father and uncle were the result of conspiracies and that there have been subsequent conspiracies to cover up the truth. He views his cousin’s case in a similar way.
In Framed, Kennedy writes that “Martha’s murder is the centerpiece of a tragic parable with powerful moral lessons about the hazards of orthodoxy,” positioning himself as a lone voice with the moral courage to refute the conventional wisdom. This approach also characterizes Kennedy’s core campaign message: on vaccines, the origins of the coronavirus, or even the supposed health perils of Wi-Fi, he alone has the guts to tell the truth.
It would be possible to challenge the prosecution of Michael Skakel as a misguided attempt by decent prosecutors to close a notorious and tragic case. But that’s not Kennedy’s view. Rather, Kennedy argues in Framed that a large number of people engaged in a sinister conspiracy to frame his cousin; they all knew Skakel was innocent, but they went after him anyway. “Because of the dearth of evidence against him and his airtight alibi,” Kennedy writes, “a number of people had to commit selfish, malicious, or illegal acts in order to convict Michael, who found himself in a confluence where the pooled ambitions of several unscrupulous men and women intersected to sweep him away.”
Kennedy’s list of villains includes Tom Sheridan, a Skakel-family adviser who persuaded Michael’s father to hire the Sutton investigators; Dunne, the writer who kept the story of the murder alive; Frank Garr, the main Greenwich Police investigator on the case; and the prosecutors, led by Benedict, who hounded an innocent man. (I covered Skakel’s trial, and Kennedy describes me in passing as one of the journalists who “stoked the pitchfork brigade and officiated over Michael’s press lynching.”)
The heart of Kennedy’s defense of his cousin is that Skakel had what Kennedy describes variously as an “ironclad alibi” and a “gold-plated alibi” because he was at the Terrien home between 9:30 and 10 p.m., “the established time of Martha’s death.” But that narrow window was not “the established” time of her death; in fact, the testimony of multiple forensic-science experts at the trial, based on the crime-scene evidence and autopsy results, showed that it was impossible to pinpoint the precise time of death. According to their testimony, Moxley could have died any time between 9:30 p.m. on October 30 and 5:30 a.m. the following morning. Kennedy’s fundamental distortion of the evidence undermines his case for Skakel’s innocence.
Kennedy also spends a great deal of time describing the foibles of the government’s witnesses, calling them “a parade of felons, drug addicts, habitual liars, riffraff, and attention-seekers looking for reward money or desperate for a part in a celebrity legal spectacle.” To be sure, many of the students at Élan were there because they had drug or alcohol problems. Ken Littleton, the family tutor, also struggled with addiction later in life.
But if a history of addiction made an individual unworthy of belief, then neither Skakel nor Kennedy himself would be credible. Kennedy has often described his decade-plus period of heroin addiction, which included an arrest in 1983 after he passed out in an airplane bathroom from an overdose. As he writes of Skakel, “He helped me to get sober in 1983 and over the next 15 years, we attended hundreds of addiction-recovery meetings together.” Many of the witnesses against Skakel made similar recoveries.
In Framed, Kennedy positions himself as a lone voice with the moral courage to refute the conventional wisdom.
With its bewildering invocation of dozens of names, dates, and locations, Framed offers the illusion of accuracy rather than the reality. As for the main issue—who killed Martha Moxley?—Kennedy suggests it might be Littleton, the tutor, whom Skakel’s attorney, Mickey Sherman, fingered during the trial. There is also a nod in the direction of the family handyman and chauffeur, Larry Zicarelli (whom one of Kennedy’s sources describes as a “pistol-packing mechanic … a cocky, cologne-soaked hood with rolled-up T-shirt sleeves”), to whom Skakel confessed, and another at Frank Wittine, the family gardener. But Kennedy leaves the identity of the “likely killers” vague until the final chapter of the book.
Shortly after Kennedy’s 2003 Atlantic article, he received a letter from someone named Crawford Mills. “Unless I’ve been lied to,” the letter opened, “the jury got it all wrong.” Mills said his friend Tony Bryant told him that he was with two friends in Belle Haven on the night of the murder, and the pair had confessed to killing Moxley. Mills and Bryant had gone to the same private middle school in Greenwich as Skakel.
According to this game-of-telephone-like tale, Mills recalled that the pair were “unusually big, muscular, and tall” and from a public school in New York City. Kennedy himself eventually spoke to Bryant, who happened to be a cousin of the late N.B.A. star Kobe Bryant. Tony Bryant didn’t provide the pair’s full names, but Kennedy writes that “using high school yearbooks and police databases” he determined that they were Adolph “Al” Hasbrouck and Burton Tinsley, who lived in the Bronx in 1975.
This was, to put it mildly, an astonishing claim. Here was a member of one of the most prominent families in the United States accusing two heretofore obscure citizens of committing a heinous murder. What was more, Kennedy did so using the crudest racial stereotypes. As Kennedy recounts in Framed, Hasbrouck allegedly told a friend, “I want to fuck the shit out of her,” and that he wanted “to go caveman” on her. Later, according to Kennedy, Tinsley said, “We did it. We achieved the caveman.”
So, who were the men whom Kennedy accused of being murderers? Hasbrouck was an army veteran and a longtime technician at ABC News in New York. Tinsley was a photographer based in Portland, Oregon. Neither had a criminal record. Kennedy turned their lives upside down.
“There is nothing as devastating as being called a murderer. You can’t throw innocent people under the bus because it suits him,” Hasbrouck said, referring to Kennedy, in an interview with the Stamford Advocate in 2016, his only public statement about the accusation. “It’s affected me mentally and physically. I see people looking at me. There is a change in attitude when they hear my name,” Hasbrouck said. “People drive by my house. They park in my driveway. They knock on my door. They camp outside for hours. Before I enter my house, I look to see if anybody is lurking. I keep my curtains drawn so people can’t look inside. I can’t sit out in my backyard. My wife gets physically sick whenever this comes up. I don’t want to be near anyone with a camera.” (Through his lawyer, Hasbrouck declined to speak with me; Tinsley could not be reached.)
After Framed was published, Hasbrouck asked Lawrence Schoenbach, a New York lawyer, to file a libel suit against Kennedy. “I told him not to do it,” Schoenbach tells me. “This is what Kennedy wanted, to keep the story going, to drag Al’s name through the mud. And when there was a court hearing, I told Al to take the Fifth. I didn’t want to give this absurd claim any more attention than it deserved.”
Kennedy’s accusation against the two men was, and is, preposterous. It’s an understatement to say that two large nonwhite men would have drawn notice in the virtually all-white enclave of Belle Haven in 1975, and not a soul reported seeing them there on the night of the murder. No physical evidence tied Hasbrouck or Tinsley to the crime. Moreover, there wasn’t even any sworn testimony of their supposed confessions. Tony Bryant, Kennedy’s putative star witness, also refused to testify at the hearing, so there was only a secondhand version of what the two men supposedly said to him. And in 2017, Bryant was sentenced to seven years in prison after he was convicted of evading $13 million in taxes on imported cigars.
Yet in spite of this dubious trail of evidence, Kennedy writes in Framed that the evidence “suggests that [Hasbrouck and Tinsley] are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” “Kennedy made a classic racist case—let’s blame the poor [nonwhite] kids from the city,” Schoenbach, Hasbrouck’s lawyer, tells me. “These were good kids, with no criminal records—that had nothing to do with this. It’s just completely outrageous at every level.” Kennedy’s willingness to engage in this kind of egregious racial profiling should be of considerable interest to voters. (Through his campaign, Kennedy declined to comment.)
Still, in the end, Skakel, and Kennedy, won—in a way.
In 2006, the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed Skakel’s conviction, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision. In 2007, Skakel’s lawyers asked for a new trial based on the Tony Bryant material. After a hearing, a Connecticut Superior Court judge rejected this demand, and the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed that ruling in 2010.
Skakel then raised a new claim: that Sherman had provided ineffective assistance of counsel, because he was more focused on his own quest for celebrity than on his client’s best interests. (After Skakel’s trial, in an unrelated case, Sherman was convicted of evading roughly $400,000 in federal taxes and sentenced to a year in prison.) In 2013, a Connecticut Superior Court judge ruled that Sherman’s defense had been constitutionally defective, ordered a new trial for Skakel, and released him on bail.
The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed that ruling in 2016 and reinstated the conviction. However, on a motion for reconsideration in 2018, the Connecticut Supreme Court decided that Skakel was entitled to a new trial after all. In 2020, in light of the passage of 45 years since the crime and the fact that Skakel had already served 11 years in prison, prosecutors decided against conducting a re-trial. In the decade since his release from prison, Skakel, now 63, has disappeared from public view.
In Framed, Kennedy purports to offer “powerful moral lessons about the hazards of orthodoxy,” and he does the same in his 2021 best-seller, The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health. He writes, “Dr. Fauci has cultivated a theology that denounces questioning of his orthodoxy as irresponsible, uninformed, and dangerous heresy,” which Kennedy likens to the Spanish Inquisition and “Soviet and other totalitarian systems.” Despite Fauci’s alleged power to censor opposing views, Kennedy freely espouses his own crackpot beliefs: among others, that vaccines cause autism, H.I.V. is not the cause of AIDS, and Wi-Fi causes brain damage. It would take a book of nearly the same length to address all of Kennedy’s scientific claims, and he’s cynical enough to recognize that no one is likely to go to the trouble.
The tone in the Fauci book is also like that in Framed. Kennedy’s adversary, here Fauci, is not misguided but “evil”: “He is a sociopath who has pushed science into the realm of sadism.” “He destroyed American science by snuffing out its spirit, the spirit of open inquiry, proof, and standards.” “Why is he ‘evil’? (Which he is.)”
Toward the end, Kennedy asks, clearly rhetorically, “Are we justified in asking ourselves whether Tony Fauci, after decades of concocting toothless pandemics,” intentionally inflicted the coronavirus on the world? Kennedy’s implication is about as credible as his certainty that his cousin is innocent.
Before declaring his candidacy as an independent, Robert Kennedy had virtually no chance of defeating President Biden for the Democratic nomination, much less of becoming president of the United States, so it’s tempting to ignore his candidacy as the vanity project it is. Still, polls showed him with roughly 10 percent of the Democratic primary vote against Biden. Later polls have suggested that, as an independent, Kennedy may hurt Donald Trump’s chances more than Biden’s. At this point, it’s just unclear what impact his candidacy will have, but Kennedy does appear determined to carry his campaign through to Election Day.
Kennedy appears to be making a special push for Black voters, which would not be surprising in light of his family’s long connection to that community. “Black Americans are going to be a principal priority for me, particularly in ending that fear of dangerous interaction with law enforcement,” Kennedy said in a recent interview with the Black Press of America, which was carried in New York Amsterdam News, New York’s leading Black newspaper, among other outlets.
Kennedy’s disgraceful accusations against Hasbrouck and Tinsley, and the language he used in making them, offer a more useful insight into his character than his current campaign rhetoric. In a broader sense, Kennedy has styled his campaign as the crusade of an independent truthteller who is not beholden to the pieties of the political party that is so identified with his family name. But as the story of Framed illustrates, Kennedy’s literary contrarianism, no less than his scientific contrarianism, is rooted in lies.
Jeffrey Toobin, a legal analyst and journalist, is the author of many books, including Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism