NORWALK—When Michael Skakel walks into court Tuesday on the first day of his murder trial, scores of television and still cameras will be trained on him every step of the way. The last image they capture will be his back as he passes through the exterior doors.
There will be no cameras in the courtroom for the high-profile trial. There hasn't been a camera allowed in a criminal courtroom in Connecticut since the notorious O.J. Simpson trial in Los Angeles in 1995.
"I don't think you have to be a genius to figure it out in terms of the O.J. case," said Judge Joseph Pellegrino, chief court administrator for Connecticut. "I think that has influenced a lot of judges, and probably a lot of litigants, too."
Pellegrino said he would not want to find himself in the position Judge Lance Ito was cast in the Simpson case.
"The judge was being criticized, no matter what he said," Pellegrino said Friday. "Everyone was commenting on everything he said. The lawyers were second-guessing him. Law professors were adding their perspectives. How would you like to be a judge after you witnessed that circus, and now someone's coming to you saying we'd like to televise this? It would make me gun-shy."
Court TV submitted a request to Skakel trial judge John F. Kavanewsky Jr. a year ago to televise the trial. Prosecutor Jonathan Benedict opposed the presence of cameras. Skakel's defense lawyer, Mickey Sherman, favored it. Kavanewsky denied the request, and later denied a similar request from The Courant to allow a still camera in the courtroom.
Sherman remains disappointed by the ruling.
"There's really no rationale for it, other than a bad knee-jerk reaction to the O.J. Simpson case," Sherman said, referring to Connecticut's apparent trend of denying media requests to photograph and broadcast criminal cases.
Sherman said he wanted cameras in the courtroom for Skakel's trial to dispel any notion that the verdict would be skewed by the defendant's wealth and ties to the Kennedy family. Skakel's aunt, Ethel Skakel, is the widow of U.S. Senator and slain presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.
"The problem with this case is that it has the O.J. taint, in that when we win, the perception will be that another rich, connected guy beat the system," Sherman said. "If there were cameras in the courtroom, the public would be able to see why the jury acquitted him, that there were no smoke and mirrors, no shenanigans. That it was the simple evidence that fell far short of convicting Michael Skakel."
Skakel, 41, is charged with murder in the 1975 slaying of Martha Moxley in the gated Greenwich community of Belle Haven, where they were neighbors and friends. Both Moxley and Skakel were 15 at the time. Moxley was bludgeoned to death with a 6-iron golf club belonging to a set owned by Skakel's mother.
The state's case centers upon an odd cast of former teenaged classmates of Skakel's at a controversial school for adolescents who had substance abuse and other problems. Their testimony that Skakel confessed to the crime while at the Elan School in the late 1970s led to his arrest in January 2000. There is no DNA or other evidence tying Skakel directly to the murder.
The Skakel case joins a growing list of cases in Connecticut in which cameras have been barred. They include the case of serial killer Michael Ross, the recent Beth Ann Carpenter murder trial in New London and the manslaughter trial of New Milford Police Officer Scott Smith, to name a few. Because requests for coverage are submitted to the trial judge and administrative judge of the judicial district in which the trial will occur, the judicial branch has no central repository of requests and their disposition.
The only Connecticut trial at which cameras have been permitted inside the courtroom was a Waterbury civil case two years ago involving a water rights dispute. Superior Court Judge Beverly Hodgson granted the request of the Waterbury Republican-American to photograph the proceedings.
Connecticut judges 20 years ago passed the rules permitting cameras in the courtroom, at the judge's discretion. The rules do not permit coverage of arraignments and other pretrial proceedings, but allow filming of trials that do not involve sexual offenses, trade secrets or family matters.
Past high-profile trials that were photographed and televised include the 1984 trial of Steven Wood, which was the first capital case tried in Connecticut after the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976; the trial of Dr. Russell Manfredi on charges he killed his wife in 1985 and tried to disguise the true cause of her death with a motor vehicle accident; the Richard Crafts "woodchipper" murder trial in 1988; and the trial of Karin Aparo in 1990 on murder conspiracy charges in the death of her mother, Joyce Aparo.
Neither the American Bar Association nor the National Center for State Courts has studied the effect the O.J. Simpson trial had on camera access to courtrooms. Connecticut is among 34 states that allow camera coverage of criminal trials, with the consent of the parties. The trial judge makes the decision on a case-by-case basis, and there is no avenue of appeal by the media when requests are denied.
Pellegrino said there has been no concerted effort by judges in Connecticut to bar cameras. "We take no position," he said of the administration's role. "It's the judge's call."
He did, however, challenge assertions by media representatives that cameras in the courtroom for Skakel and other prominent cases serve to educate and enlighten the public.
"If you wanted to educate the public, you'd be televising all kinds of cases - some civil, some small claims, some motor vehicle cases," Pellegrino said. "You're not interested, primarily, in educating the public."
In neighboring Massachusetts, cameras are permitted routinely in criminal trials. Joan Kenney, whose tenure as spokeswoman for the court system there predates the O.J. Simpson case, said it had no chilling effect in Massachusetts.
"I think most judges realize that case was an aberration," Kenney said Friday. "We've had many [televised] trials here since that time. We have experienced judges who set the ground rules with the press, who meet with them beforehand, answer questions and work out whatever issues there are. I would say our courts are very camera-friendly, as long as reporters respect the process."
The recent case of "hockey dad" Thomas Junta attracted national media attention to the Middlesex County Courthouse in Cambridge, and Court TV and several other networks televised Junta's testimony live. Kenney said that in Massachusetts, court rules presume that coverage will include cameras, and it's up to the trial judge, if he wishes to deny access, to state how the coverage would be harmful to a party in the case.
In New Hampshire, cameras were permitted at the arraignments of Robert Tulloch and James Parker, the teenage defendants in the murders of Dartmouth professors Half and Suzanne Zantop. Although trial Judge Peter Smith denied media requests to have cameras present at Tulloch's trial, the state Supreme Court granted an emergency motion by the media last month and ordered Smith to permit cameras at the hearing in which Tulloch switched his plea to guilty.