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Defense expert casts doubt on Skakel confessions

Michael Skakel (right) spoke to his lawyer, Hubert Santos, Monday in court in Vernon, Conn.

Jason Rearick /The Stamford Advocate via associated press

Michael Skakel (right) spoke to his lawyer, Hubert Santos, Monday in court in Vernon, Conn.

VERNON, Conn. — A specialist on coerced confessions cast doubt Monday on testimony that Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel confessed to a 1975 murder, saying the alleged statements were made at a reform school where he suffered beatings and humiliation.

Skakel’s lawyers called Richard Ofshe to testify in Rockville Superior Court, where they are challenging Skakel’s 2002 conviction on the grounds that he had ineffective legal representation during his trial. Skakel is serving 20 years to life for Martha Moxley’s golf club bludgeoning when they were 15-year-old neighbors in Greenwich.

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During the trial, two classmates testified that Skakel confessed at Elan School in Maine in the late 1970s, while former Elan students called by his defense testified that he never confessed despite being repeatedly beaten, spanked with a board, and put in a makeshift boxing ring with a succession of students. They also said Skakel was forced to wear a sign that covered his body and urged students to confront him about the murder.

At Elan, the murder accusation was a way to ‘‘make his life a living hell,’’ Ofshe said. If Skakel shifted from denying the crime to saying he had no memory of it, the public abuse would stop, Ofshe said.

‘‘In my opinion, he now had signified deference to the community,’’ he said.

Ofshe, a social psychologist who is professor emeritus at the University of California Berkeley, said one account, in which a student testified that Skakel gradually confessed, was unreliable. He said the other purported confession contained factual errors, such as an assertion that Skakel returned to the crime scene two days later.

‘‘It can turn out that a ‘confession statement’ under some circumstances actually given by a person in the course of confessing if properly understood should be classified as evidence of lack of knowledge of the crime,’’ Ofshe said.

Had trial lawyer Michael Sherman contacted him before the trial, Ofshe would have strongly urged him to challenge the testimony, he said.

Sherman said last week he believed he had destroyed the credibility of the testimony through cross-examinations.

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