BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) – Prosecutor Jonathan Benedict faced daunting odds after he charged a Kennedy family member in 2000 with a 25-year-old murder.

There was no forensic evidence. A star witness admitted he was high on heroin during his grand jury appearance and died after using drugs before the trial. Some witnesses struggled to recall the night of the killing. A lead investigator thought someone else committed the murder. And defendant Michael Skakel had an alibi and a flashy attorney who was so confident he put a cop on the jury.

But Benedict won.

“He had some real guts to take it on,” said Tim Dumas, who wrote a book on the case. “He really in his quiet way just took hold of that case and didn’t let go.”

Benedict will retire June 30 after 12 years as the top state prosecutor in Connecticut’s largest city. He’s fended off numerous appeals from Skakel’s attorneys and a campaign by Skakel’s cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose name guaranteed national attention.

Fourty-eight-year-old Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, is serving 20 years to life in prison after he was convicted in 2002 of bludgeoning his 15-year-old neighbor, Martha Moxley, to death with a golf club in wealthy Greenwich.

He was 15 at the time.

“Obviously, John and I will never agree on pretty much everything about the Skakel trial,” said Michael Sherman, Skakel’s trial attorney. “But I’ve known John for at least 30 years, have tried several cases other than Skakel with him and I always found him to be a very decent man who did his very best to achieve what he believed would be the ends of justice.”

Benedict, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran who does triathlons, admitted he thought the case was unsolvable years before he became involved. But when he was named state’s attorney, he said he realized significant evidence had been developed against Skakel.

“We don’t solve all cases,” Benedict said. “People … literally get away with murder. But sometimes people can be caught up no matter how extensive the efforts are made to cover up a crime like this.”

Skakel’s family has long denied any cover-up and maintains he is innocent.

Benedict, who grew up in Fairfield, joined his father’s law practice but decided prosecutorial work would be more interesting. As a prosecutor in Bridgeport, Benedict certainly found his work challenging, said Chris Morano, the former chief state’s attorney who worked with Benedict on the Skakel case.

Shortly before the Skakel trial, Benedict won convictions against two brothers for gunning down an 8-year-old boy and his mother even though the star witness suffered from hallucinations and gave conflicting statements to police.

“I can’t think of a better boot camp,” Morano said. “He was really prepared for having to deal with the things thrown at him that might have thrown other prosecutors off their game.”

A renowned forensics expert failed to come up with DNA evidence tying Skakel to Moxley’s death. But the sometimes gruff Benedict built his case around Skakel’s own words.

Two classmates testified Skakel confessed to the crime in the late 1970s when he attended a reform school in Maine. And the Skakel family driver said Skakel told him he had done something “very bad” and had to either kill himself or get out of the country.

Other witnesses testified that Skakel told them he had climbed a tree near the Moxley house the night of the murder and masturbated, a change from his original account that he came home from his cousin’s house and went to bed. Moxley’s body was found under a pine tree on her property.

A friend of Skakel’s sister challenged his alibi, saying Skakel was not among the youths who drove to Skakel’s cousin’s house in another part of Greenwich the night of the murder.

“There wasn’t any knockout punch, but the cumulative effect of all those body punches won him the fight,” said attorney Gene Riccio, who represented an earlier suspect in the case.

Benedict’s high-tech audio-visual closing presentation included a snapshot of a smiling Moxley that dissolved into a grim crime scene photo. It also included a taped interview of Skakel telling an author that he woke up the day after the murder in a panic.

“He has spun a web in which he has ultimately entrapped himself,” Benedict told the jury.

Skakel’s attorneys have argued that Benedict manipulated Skakel’s words to make it look like he was referring to the crime. But the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the verdict.

Laura Copeland, one of the jurors, said Benedict came across as honest and trustworthy, particularly during the closing.

“At that point, he was just confirming for me where my head was already,” Copeland said. “There were so many smaller things and they all added up, at least for me, not having any doubt.”

Dorthy Moxley, the victim’s mother, said Benedict was cool and relaxed, giving the family “a feeling of confidence.”

Benedict’s retirement leaves prosecutor Susann Gill to continue handling pending appeals.

“Maybe I’ll come back like a lone ranger if there’s a retrial,” he joked.

But he quickly added there will be no retrial.


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