Can a broadcaster defame someone who has already been convicted of murder? That question will likely be at the center of a libel and slander suit filed by attorneys for Michael Skakel against CNN talk show host Nancy Grace and another broadcaster.
“These two journalists perpetuated lies,” said Stamford, Conn., attorney Stephan Seeger, one of Skakel’s lawyers. “This case is about totally irresponsible journalism.”
The Skakel saga is well known to the Connecticut legal community. Michael Skakel is the nephew of Ethel Kennedy, who is the widow of Robert F. Kennedy. Skakel was convicted in 2002 of killing Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley with a golf club back in 1975, when both were 15. Skakel was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, but continues to claim his innocence.
In January, he unsuccessfully appealed his sentence to a three-judge panel. And last month, he had his first parole hearing after 10 years in prison. His request for parole was denied.
It was around the time of the January hearing that Grace, a former Fulton County prosecutor, and reporter Beth Karas discussed the case on the air. The Skakel legal team alleges the hosts falsely claimed Skakel’s DNA was found near the 1975 murder scene. Seeger said he is “hard-pressed to explain what motive they had whatsoever other than ratings.”
Grace’s justice system-themed show is more commentary than reporting, and she shows an affinity for crime victims—her fiancé was murdered. But Connecticut legal experts say that her opinionated approach doesn’t shield her from defamation charges.
“Whether she is a commentator or a reporter, it’s irrelevant,” said Dan Klau, a First Amendment and media lawyer with McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter in Hartford, Conn.
What is relevant then? First, Skakel’s legal team must prove Grace acted with malice—that she made false statements knowing that they were false or with “reckless disregard” for the truth. That may be possible, said Klau. “I believe, if you followed the Skakel case, you know there was no DNA evidence,” Klau said.
But even if the malice standard is met, said Klau, someone suing for defamation must show they were harmed. “What is the injury?” asked Klau. “If I were representing one of the defendants, I would argue that [Skakel] is libel proof. If I’m the network’s attorney, my argument would be that you can’t damage Michael Skakel’s reputation any more than it is damaged.”
Also named in the suit, filed in Stamford Superior Court, is Karas, who most often appears on Tru-TV; and CNN parent companies Time Warner Inc. and Turner Broadcasting Inc.
Several messages were left asking Grace for comment, but neither she nor CNN responded.
‘Telling the truth’
Richard Meehan Jr., of Meehan, Meehan & Gavin in Bridgeport, Conn., is a civil and criminal lawyer who has appeared as a guest on ABC’s Good Morning America and The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News, among other programs.
He applauds the efforts of Skakel’s lawyers to hold Grace and the others accountable. Like others, he noted that Skakel’s DNA was not found at the murder scene. “They should be telling the truth or nothing at all,” Meehan said of the CNN broadcasters.
Meehan doesn’t think the motive of the lawsuit is to win a lot of money from Grace or CNN. “This strikes me as where he wants to vindicate his reputation,” Meehan said.
Seeger confirmed that he’s concerned how such false statements might affect Skakel, now 52, at future parole board hearings. Skakel can reapply for parole in five years. The attorney also said such falsehoods hurt Skakel’s family. He has a 13-year-old son whose mother is suffering from cancer.
Seeger said he believes the Nancy Grace show sensationalized the case because it involves the Kennedy family, a topic that draws viewers. Seeger said he is “hard-pressed to give another reason for [them to be] propagating a known falsehood.”
“Michael Skakel is entitled to protect his reputation,” said Seeger. “He’s entitled to pursue his constitutional right to appeal and petition the courts, without being bombarded by false statements solely to profit from the mystique of the ‘Kennedy cousin’ label that not so mysteriously appears every time any media outlet covers his story.”
For the record, Seeger claims that there was DNA found at the murder scene. But it wasn’t Skakel’s DNA, said Seeger, though it could vindicate him.
“If you want to sensationalize the Kennedy family name in the context of DNA evidence in the Michael Skakel case, you don’t need to talk about imaginary DNA,” Seeger said. “There are two hairs, real hairs, an African-American hair and an Asian hair that were collected with the body in this case. They remain untested, but DNA may someday readily confirm” a defense theory that the murder was committed by two other men.