The true crime story behind the first episode of Cold Case is still in court today

By: Start TV Staff     Posted: August 21, 2018, 1:53PM

Image: The Everett Collection / Skyhorse Publishing

There was nothing like Cold Case on TV in the U.S. when the series first arrived on schedules in 2003. The imaginative series followed in CSI's footsteps by taking its plots from national crime stories being covered by the media, but it went so much further and did so much more to honor the time and place of the cold cases its episodes traced.

Through flashbacks, Cold Case took us as far back as the 1920s and '30s, playing out some of the most famous crimes in history with a soundtrack and styling that honored the time period. It was like a period piece and crime TV in one show, and for today's fans of true crime, it was like a catalog of American crime you could watch every Sunday night. 

And while it was always extra fascinating when the show stretched to the very ends of the long timeline it tracked, the bulk of Cold Case primarily stuck to crimes publicized in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s. Sometimes the episodes were historically accurate, such as one that took us behind the scenes of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison concert. Others seem to intentionally stagger the date of their fictitious cases, setting them just a few years off from the cases that serve as each episode's inspiration. That's the case for the premiere episode of the show, "Look Again."

[Spoiler Alert]

"Look Again" tells the story of a girl who moves to a new school, falls in with a clique of rich kids, and eventually ends up discovered on a tennis court, beaten to death with a tennis racket. The episode places this case in 1976, but it shares a lot of similarities to a notorious case from the prior year.

In 1975, a 15-year-old girl named Martha Moxley went off to celebrate "Mischief Night" with a group of kids in her wealthy neighborhood. The plan was to ring doorbells and dash, toilet-paper a few trees, harmless teen pranks. But Moxley was later found murdered under a tree in her yard, beaten to death with a golf club. It would take nearly three decades for her killer to be convicted, but in 2002, Michael Skakel (who had been 15 at the time of the murder) was finally found guilty.

This sensational cold case became high-profile not just because it involved young teens, but also because Skakel is connected to the Kennedys, by way of his aunt Ethel Skakel Kennedy who was the widow of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Later when Skakel tried to appeal his conviction, a new theory emerged fanned by Gitano "Tony" Bryant, who was there on the night it happened and claimed he heard one of the guys that night say they planned to rape Moxley. Bryant is the cousin of retired NBA legend Kobe Bryant. Whether the celebrity of the relations of those involved really played a factor in the publicity given to the case, we can't be sure, but it's been in the headlines ever since because Skakel's been fighting his conviction since 2002. Just this year the Connecticut Supreme Court granted Skakel a retrial.

When Cold Case debuted in 2003, the initial verdict of the Skakel had just been heard and the story was everywhere, from Time magazine to CNN. Undoubtedly viewers who tuned in recognized the true crime thinly veiled by the episode's plot. In this way, the pilot would become the ultimate tease for what Cold Case would become: a show that hooked viewers by creating a portal to go back in time to re-experience some of the country's most notoriously unsolved cases - only this time, Cold Case writers made sure that viewers arrived at a much more satisfying conclusion).

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