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Dominick Dunne vs. Robert Kennedy

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Thicker Than Water: Robert Kennedy Jr. is speaking out about Dunne's coverage of his cousin's trial.  

Undiluted from life to novel is Dunne’s youthful worship of the Kennedys. His stand-in narrator, Harrison Burns (Burns is the surname of Dunne’s paternal grandfather), is a bookish Connecticut Catholic prep-school student. When Harrison’s parents are killed, he is all but adopted by the charismatic, dynastic Bradley clan and develops a crush on the eldest son, Constant Bradley, who goes from academic plagiarism to national political office. As an adult, Harrison is nagged by conscience: He helped cover up the murder of a teenage girl whom Constant killed.

“People get caught up in the chichi of his books, the guessing game of Who is this? But Nick writes morality tales,” says his friend Tita Cahn, the widow of lyricist Sammy Cahn. “We laugh about our both being Catholic, but in everything he writes there’s a moral. Underneath all of his social life lies a very strong and brave heart.”

Purgatory reanimated public interest in the Moxley case. But it was only after a second book that the Connecticut state’s attorney ramped up the investigation. Dunne sympathized with Mark Fuhrman after the Simpson trial—“Mark is a complicated guy, like me”—and passed the former L.A. detective a copy of a private investigator’s report in which Michael Skakel’s account of his whereabouts differ from what he’d originally told Greenwich police. The report, commissioned by Rushton Skakel, had been leaked to Dunne. Fuhrman used it as the centerpiece of 1998’s Murder in Greenwich, which fingered Michael Skakel as the prime suspect.

“My only motivation in this has been Mrs. Moxley,” Dunne says. “No one understands the pain she’s experienced like I do.”

Bobby Kennedy says he was so stunned by Michael Skakel’s conviction that he spent months running down documents and interviewing relatives who would never speak to a reporter. The result was a 14,000-word brief for reasonable doubt, published in the January/February issue of The Atlantic Monthly. “I waited for ten years for a journalist to do this story, and it never happened,” he says. “Once Michael was convicted, I decided to do it.”

He’d also held back because of recent tension between the Kennedys and the Skakels—Michael at one point thought the Kennedys were scapegoating him for the Moxley murder. Bobby Kennedy says conscience, and regret at not having stepped in sooner, propelled him into the fray. It would be easy to understand if, after a lifetime of watching Kennedys be exploited, he also wants to exact a small measure of revenge on the media.

Kennedy once worked as a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and "A Miscarriage of Justice” reads like a skillful closing summation to a jury. His Atlantic Monthly story apportions blame for Michael Skakel’s conviction to many actors, including ambitious Connecticut prosecutors and Mickey Sherman, Skakel’s defense lawyer. Kennedy mounts plausible challenges to dozens of incriminating details, everything from the time of Moxley’s death to the significance of Michael Skakel’s masturbating in a tree on the night of Moxley’s murder. But two people are crucial to Kennedy’s attempt to raise reasonable doubts on behalf of his cousin.

The first is Ken Littleton, a 23-year-old former college rugby player who’d been hired to tutor the Skakel children one week before Martha Moxley was killed. Kennedy lays out Littleton’s shifting alibis—including his taped admission, seventeen years after the crime, that he’d been so drunk he’d blacked out the night of Moxley’s death. Littleton also had extensive psychological problems in the years after Moxley’s death. Incredibly, as Kennedy points out, in 1998 the Connecticut attorney general gave Littleton lifetime immunity in exchange for his testimony before the grand jury that indicted Michael Skakel.

“I do not know that Ken Littleton killed Martha Moxley,” Kennedy writes. “I do know . . . that the state’s case against Littleton was much stronger than any case against Michael Skakel.” The reason Connecticut officials went after his cousin, Kennedy insists, was Dunne, who drove the press into a “Lord of the Flies frenzy to lynch the fat kid” and intimidated Connecticut prosecutors.

Kennedy hammers especially hard at Dunne’s repeated claim that the Skakels wouldn’t cooperate with police. What truly incenses Kennedy, though, is what he sees as Dunne’s calculating commercialization of the crime.

“The formula that Dominick Dunne has employed to fulfill his dreams has done damage to a lot of people he’s left in his wake,” Kennedy tells me. “Dunne wants to write about two things, both of which are easy to sell: high-profile crimes and famous people. So he’s forced to try to make connections between his high-profile protagonists and the crimes. He’s very clever about the way he does it. If you look at how he couches his accusations, it’s always ‘Somebody told me this.’ ‘An anonymous source said this.’ So he’s not saying it’s true, but the average reader misses that nuance. For some reason, the voice of this pathetic creature has been amplified by the willingness of talk-show hosts to allow him on to spout this stuff, and by his publishers, who publish stuff without fact-checking.”

Jeffrey Toobin has been friends with Dunne since they both covered the Simpson trial; Toobin is also a former prosecutor, and covered the Skakel case for CNN and The New Yorker. “I think Robert Kennedy Jr. is full of shit, I think that piece is a joke, and I think Michael Skakel is guilty,” Toobin says. “Kennedy’s piece completely ignored the considerable incriminating evidence that was presented at trial.”

Which is part of the reason that reading Dunne’s and Kennedy’s accounts of the Moxley ordeal side by side is an eerie experience. Both leave out evidence weakening their own positions, of course. Both invoke their families’ tragic firsthand history with violent crime. What’s more, after aligning all their favorable facts and interpretations, both rest their cases on their own infallible instinct and truthfulness.

“I know Michael Skakel didn’t do it,” Kennedy says.

“I absolutely firmly believe he did it,” Dunne says.

A jury backed Dunne’s view of the Skakel case. Now, though, Dunne is finding out what it feels like to be a defendant.

“I can remember being at a fashion show a year ago,” Graydon Carter says, “and a photographer from a German newspaper coming up to me and saying, ‘I’ve got something for Mr. Dunne regarding the Safra case. Can you give him my phone number?’ And I passed it on to Nick, and Nick called him. If you’re somebody like me, who gives off a please-don’t-fuck-with-me vibe sitting on an airplane, Dominick gives off the opposite thing, and then people sit beside him and tell him their life stories, whether they’re strangers or socialites. It’s quite remarkable.”

Dunne’s sourcing can be airy—“a very good-looking woman,” “a renowned author”—and his forecasts misguided, like when he wrote that Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden "is, for my money, the man to watch in this trial.” But one thing Dunne has never pretended to is objectivity, and it seems churlish to hold him accountable for Sins Against Journalism. Courts have a different standard.

Usually, once his longtime Vanity Fair editor, Wayne Lawson, and the magazine’s lawyers have filtered Dunne’s strange brew of reporting and rumor, the tales he’s been told make for riveting copy. But in December 2001, on a radio show, Dunne was live and uncut.


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