Mickey Sherman: Watching Skakel In Courtroom 'Nothing But Heartache For Me'

The Hartford Courant

Since he has been at the center of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel's latest attempt to get out of prison, Greenwich attorney Mickey Sherman said he has been asked often if he has mixed emotions about the outcome.

If a judge finds that Sherman's defense of Skakel at his 2002 murder trial was ineffective, Skakel could either get a new trial, less time in prison, or go free — at the expense of Sherman's reputation.

But if a judge rules Sherman did not fail in his representation, a man Sherman says is innocent would continue serving his 20-years-to-life sentence for the 1975 murder of his Greenwich neighbor, Martha Moxley.

On Thursday, after three days on the witness stand in Skakel's hearing on a writ of habeas corpus, Sherman said he hopes Judge Thomas Bishop rules in Skakel's favor.

"I don't have mixed emotions about this," Sherman said Thursday outside the courtroom. "I want him out of jail. That's the priority."

Sherman said he does not talk to Skakel anymore, though Sherman testified that the two became friends while Sherman crafted Skakel's murder defense. When Sherman tried to pass a note to Skakel this week, Skakel's relatives, Sherman said, advised against it.

"To look at Michael while I'm sitting there is nothing but heartache for me," Sherman said.

Although no words were exchanged between Sherman and his former client this week, Skakel's body language seemed to say something. Skakel, 52, sighed loudly at times, buried his eyes in his hands, and looked incredulously at his lawyers during some of Sherman's testimony.

When Sherman insisted earlier this week that he advised Skakel of his right to testify at his murder trial, contradicting Skakel, who is arguing the point in his latest bid for freedom, Skakel shook his head side to side. Skakel has contended that he wanted to testify at his trial.

During cross-examination Thursday, Sherman elaborated on his decision to keep Skakel off the witness stand, saying Skakel's testimony was unnecessary because of statements Skakel had already made about Moxley's murder.

And, Sherman said, he worried how Skakel would do under cross-examination by prosecutors.

"He does have a temper, he does get excited," Sherman testified at Superior Court in Rockville.

Although he said he did not think Skakel would "blow up" on the stand, Sherman said he feared Skakel would "get mad as he was so entitled to" because he was innocent. Sherman said he wanted jurors to see Skakel as a "sedate, nice man."

As it was, there was a story "in his words, by his voice" out there — about how Skakel climbed a tree on the Moxley property and masturbated the night of the murder — that said Skakel "did something creepy" but that did not mean he killed Moxley, Sherman said.

"What more would come out," with Skakel on the stand, "that would be helpful?" Sherman asked Fairfield County Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Susann E. Gill.

After discussing those issues with his client, Sherman said, Skakel "felt he should probably not testify," Sherman said.

Gill used Sherman's testimony Thursday to counter Skakel's petition claim that Sherman did a poor job during Skakel's trial and, among other failures, failed to advise Skakel of his right to testify.

Since Tuesday, Skakel's current lawyer, Hubert J. Santos, has grilled Sherman about why Sherman did not use certain evidence or witnesses at trial, Sherman's selection of jurors, his closing arguments, and whether Sherman spent more time talking to reporters and traveling coast-to-coast for the case instead of working on Skakel's defense.

On Thursday, Skakel's own words about the masturbating, tape-recorded by Richard Hoffman, a Boston author whom Skakel had hired to ghostwrite his autobiography, came up several times. Skakel argues in his petition that Sherman did not fight to suppress use of the audio tapes at trial or challenge what he claims was their illegal seizure from Hoffman.

The tapes, considered some of the most damning evidence at Skakel's trial, were prominent in prosecutors' closing arguments, when they used a high-tech presentation to fill the courtroom with Skakel's voice while a transcript of his statements was projected onto the screen.

The lead prosecutor at the time, Jonathan Benedict, who is now retired but is working with Gill to fight Skakel's latest petition, took excerpts of Skakel's interview with Hoffman to dramatize incriminating statements Skakel had made and dramatically projected Moxley's image — first alive, then dead — onto the courtroom wall.

Skakel claimed after the trial that prosecutors improperly highlighted his words and took them out of context in a "deceptively edited version of his taped interview" with "horrific photographs of the crime scene."

Santos pressed Sherman — who after the trial told a television reporter that Benedict's use of multimedia in his closings was a "brilliant" idea — about whether Sherman thought he was going to lose the case after the closings.

Santos asked if Sherman thought that the presentation made it look as if Skakel was confessing to Moxley's murder. Sherman said that he thought it did, but that he was still confident Skakel would be acquitted because Skakel's actual words were about the masturbation, not the murder.

Skakel was convicted of beating Moxley to death with a golf club when the two teenagers, both 15 at the time, were neighbors in the Belle Haven neighborhood in Greenwich. Skakel is a nephew of Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel Kennedy.

Skakel was not charged with Moxley's murder until 2000, when he was 39. His trial received widespread publicity because of his ties to the Kennedys.

Also Thursday, Santos attempted to bolster Skakel's long-held alibi — that he was with his brothers at a cousin's home watching a Monty Python show at the time of Moxley's murder — with a witness who has never testified in any of Skakel's court hearings.

Dennis Ossorio, 72, a former psychologist from Rye Brook, N.Y., said he saw Skakel at the home watching the show that night because he was visiting his girlfriend at the time, Georgeann Skakel Dowdle. Skakel argues in his petition that Ossorio's testimony at trial would have helped him because the prosecution claimed the only people who could support Skakel's alibi were family members.

Ossorio testified Thursday that he was never questioned by police and never talked to Sherman.

But under cross-examination by Benedict, Ossorio said Thursday that though he still lived in Greenwich when the Skakel case was widely publicized, he never went to police about seeking Skakel at his girlfriend’s home.

"I must say I didn't follow the case too closely," Ossorio said. The Skakel brothers did not tell police about Ossorio.

When asked about Ossorio on Thursday, Sherman said he did not know of Ossorio until recently.

At the 2002 trial, Dowdle testified that she recalled hearing the Skakel brothers around 10 p.m. on the night of Oct. 30, 1975, but never actually saw them.

Santos read from a transcript of Dowdle's testimony in which she said she was in the library with "her beau" the night Moxley was killed.

"Did you ever try to find out who the beau was?" Santos asked Sherman.

"I had no reason to suspect that he would be helpful, that he saw Michael," Sherman replied.

Gill asked Sherman if Skakel or his family members ever told him about Ossorio.

"I don't recall that they did," he said, but he added that if he had known about Ossorio he would have used Ossorio at trial because "the alibi was a crucial part of our case."

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