VERNON, Conn. — Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel launched a barrage of criticism Thursday against the attorney who represented him at his murder trial, portraying an overly confident lawyer having fun and basking in the limelight while making fundamental mistakes from poor jury picks to failing to track down key witnesses.
Skakel testified in his latest appeal, arguing that trial attorney Michael Sherman failed to competently defend him when he was convicted in 2002 of killing his Greenwich neighbor in 1975 when they were both 15. Skakel, the 52-year-old nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, is serving 20 years to life for the golf club bludgeoning of Martha Moxley.
Skakel, who did not testify at his trial, seemed eager to unload as he took the witness stand more than a decade after he was sent to prison. When some of his answers wandered off topic, attorneys and the judge advised him to answer only the question.
“Just focus here,” said Skakel’s attorney, Hubert Santos. “I know you want to get this off your chest.”
Skakel, heavy with receding grey hair and wearing a white shirt with a dark suit jacket, said Sherman told him he would never get arrested and that he would never go to trial, telling him, “you’ll never see the inside of a courtroom.” When he did, he said, Sherman put a police officer and a woman whose friend’s mother knew the victim’s mother on the jury despite his strong objections.
Skakel said Sherman took photos of the judge and jury with a pen camera and had him sign an autograph.
“I was flabbergasted at the nonchalant attitude,” he said.
He said Sherman did not give him a chance to review evidence in the case. When Sherman visited Skakel at his Florida home, they would mostly talk about money and golf, Skakel said.
“He wanted a war chest. He said we needed $5 million bucks,” he said.
Skakel’s current attorney argues that Sherman had significant financial troubles at the time and didn’t devote enough money to defend the case.
Sherman says he did all he could to prevent Skakel’s conviction and denies he was distracted by media attention in the high-profile case. Sherman, who testified last week and sat with his arms crossed as Skakel testified, is due to take the stand Friday again to respond to Skakel’s claims.
Skakel said Sherman referred to himself as a “media whore” and spent time with writers Skakel considered his enemies.
He said Sherman failed to track down a witness who supported his alibi and others who could rebut a claim he confessed to the crime.
Skakel said he was adamant that Sherman track down other former classmates to challenge a claim that he confessed to the crime while attending a reform school in Maine in the late 1970s, but Sherman failed to find them. One classmate, Gregory Coleman, testified that Skakel confessed to killing Moxley and said he would get away with murder because “I’m a Kennedy.”
Skakel called Coleman’s claim “laughable” and said Sherman failed to use an argument that a Skakel would never brag about being a Kennedy “because the Kennedys and the Skakels are much like the Hatfields and the McCoys.”
Skakel said he demanded Sherman hire an expert to highlight brutal conditions at the reform school but Sherman didn’t.
“It was imperative because there’s no logical way a person who has never been there could possibly comprehend the magnitude of the insanity that went on in such a place,” Skakel said. “It was a mad house.”
After he was convicted, Skakel said, Sherman visited him in prison and admitted he messed up with his jury picks.
Sherman told him about a dinner he had with a former classmate from the reform school that was attended by actor Harrison Ford and singer Michael Bolton in which the classmate said in front of them that Skakel never confessed while at the reform school, Skalel said. He said Sherman could have called Ford and Bolton to testify.
Skakel’s defense also argues that Sherman ignored a claim by a former classmate of Skakel’s that implicated two other men in the killing. Skakel said he did hang out with that classmate in Greenwich in 1975, but on cross-examination he said he never saw the man the night of the murder.
A judge has rejected the claim as not credible.
Prosecutor Jonathan Benedict was limited to questioning Skakel about his testimony rather than the whole case.
“We were sitting back waiting for Mr. Skakel to make a slip and open something up, but he didn’t,” Benedict said after the hearing.
Dorthy Moxley, the victim’s mother, has attended the trial every day and takes notes while listening with the aid of a hearing device.
“I don’t think you can believe much of what he says,” Mrs. Moxley said.