Panel Chucks Gag on Juvenile Felony Records, Keeping Skakel Case Public

Blocking confidentiality rules that sealed juvenile felony cases being tried in adult court, Monday’s ruling assures that the press can report on the retrial of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel.

Michael Skakel arrives to a courthouse in Stamford on Oct. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Denying the public access to felony juvenile records for cases tried in adult court is unconstitutional, the Second Circuit affirmed Monday. 

The 30-page, unsigned opinion sides with the Hartford Courant, Connecticut’s largest daily newspaper, in its challenge to state limits on who can access high-profile juvenile matters, including that of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel. 

Part of a 2019 amendment to Connecticut’s Juvenile Transfer Act, the confidentiality rule pertains to cases where a defendant between ages 15 and 18 is charged with certain felonies, including murder, armed robbery and rape. Though the defendant is subject to the full range of penalties and procedures of adult court, wherein records are typically accessible to the public, only victims and their family members can access the records in these cases unless the criminal defendant was found or pleaded guilty.

U.S. Circuit Judges Denny Chin, Joseph Bianco and Steven J. Menashi agreed Monday that blocking access undercuts public interest. 

The Courant “has a qualified First Amendment right of access to criminal prosecutions of juveniles in regular criminal court,” the panel wrote.

Further, the ruling states, the Connecticut law blocking access “infringes on that right because it is not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. Accordingly, we agree with the district court that the Act is unconstitutional.” 

Another section of the Juvenile Transfer Act ordered proceedings to be held in parts of the courthouse that are separate from other trials, and where the public and press are prohibited. 

The Hartford Courant said the law prevented it from being able to report on a retroactively sealed matter against Michael Skakel, now 60 who was convicted in 2002 of murdering his neighbor Martha Moxley in 1975. Both Skakel and Moxley were 15 years old at the time.

Skakel was granted a retrial in 2018 after showing that his defense team at trial had been inadequate. Under the now-enjoined privacy law, that trial would be closed to the public, despite its national relevance. 

The Courant also pointed to other locally significant prosecutions like a manslaughter case against a 16-year-old, who was charged with the October 2020 hit-and-run that left a 71-year-old woman dead during shootout in Hartford. 

During oral arguments last month before the three-judge panel, Connecticut Assistant Attorney General Alma Nunley emphasized that unsealing juvenile records is more than an access issue, and has a “punitive” element. 

Citing expert testimony from psychologists, Nunley held that “individuals don’t finish developing until well into their twenties,” giving reason to protect the confidentiality of people whose judgment has not fully matured.

Nunley also noted that juvenile cases transferred to adult court could be transferred back to the juvenile domain. But Judge Bianco pointed out that “there’s a much more narrow way of dealing with” those cases. 

Katie Townsend, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, represents the Hartford Courant. She said in an email that her team is, “obviously, very pleased with the Second Circuit’s decision.” 

“The Courant challenged this law because it believed it clearly violated the First Amendment right of the press and the public,” Townsend continued, “and we are gratified that the Second Circuit, like the district court, agreed.”   

As the newspaper’s case proceeds now in District Court, the press and public will be able to access dockets and court records for the cases in question. 

A spokesperson for Connecticut’s attorney general’s office said the state is reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps. 

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