The Murder Case That Just Wouldn't Go Away

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The rich are different from you and me. They appear to find it easier and, in some cases, more difficult to escape murder charges. Witness Wednesday's announcement that Michael Skakel, a nephew of Robert Kennedy's widow, Ethel, was to be arrested for the murder of Martha Moxley — almost 25 years after the 15-year-old's body was found on the tony Connecticut estate where she lived. Until a couple of years ago, the case had languished on the desks of prosecutors, whose efforts apparently were alternately stymied and galvanized by the Skakel family's wealth and connections.

From the beginning, it was a story made for tabloids: A pretty, privileged girl is bludgeoned and stabbed to death with a golf club after leaving her neighbor's home in a super-wealthy section of Greenwich. The police investigate almost apologetically, gently interviewing witnesses from one of the richest enclaves in the country, and — perhaps unsurprisingly — come up with next to nothing. The two main suspects, Michael and Tommy Skakel, 15 and 17 at the time, are guarded by the impenetrable wall of respectful silence often granted to the wealthy and the famous. Never mind that the golf club used to kill Moxley was part of a set from the Skakel house. Never mind that a mounting pile of evidence pointed directly to the moneyed Skakel family.

This case, with its celebrity connections, has spawned double-edged swords of public debate: Why has it taken a quarter century to bring the main suspect to trial? And conversely, if cracking the case was as hopeless as 25 years of relative silence would indicate, why did prosecutors later dust off the files? "This case originally was about a botched police investigation that went nowhere," says TIME senior correspondent Edward Barnes. "It wasn't until William Kennedy Smith was accused of rape, and the Kennedy connections reemerged, that people were drawn again to this murder." The Moxley case's peripheral association with the Smith trial attracted the attention of O. J. Simpson scribe Dominick Dunne and O. J. Simpson detective-turned-author Mark Fuhrman — and a new set of prosecutors, who took their case to a grand jury.

On thing's for sure: Since this case involves wealth, an attractive victim and the Kennedys — albeit third-string Kennedys — every detail will be gobbled up by the celebrity-obsessed American public. "The Moxley case resonates the same way the JonBenet Ramsey case does," says Barnes. "A crime is committed, and since it involves a well-to-do family, the police tread lightly and don't cover all the bases." As the investigation and prosecution continue, Michael Skakel may find he's not the only one facing tough questions. The remaining members of the 1975-era Greenwich law-enforcement community, for example, may have a lot of explaining to do.