On the eve of Michael Skakel's 2002 trial for the murder of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley, a close friend of Moxley's went to Skakel's defense lawyer, Mickey Sherman, with some news.
Marjorie Walker Hauer testified Friday in Superior Court in Rockville that she told Sherman that one of her brother's friends, Gitano "Tony" Bryant, said two of his buddies killed 15-year-old Moxley.
"He told me he was aware of the story but it didn't seem credible," Walker Hauer recalled Sherman telling her. She said Sherman told her the story did not deserve further investigation.
Walker Hauer said she also told the story to Greenwich police and Moxley's mother, Dorthy, before the trial.
A year later, in August 2003, Bryant would give a videotaped interview to private investigator Vito Colucci Jr. implicating his friends, and the information would later take center stage at Skakel's unsuccessful bid for a new trial for the 1975 murder of Moxley.
Superior Court Judge Edward R. Karazin Jr. in 2007 found Bryant's story unbelievable and said there was no new or credible evidence to upset the jury's 2002 verdict that Skakel killed Moxley. The state Supreme Court in April 2010 upheld Karazin's decision.
Skakel, 52, is using Bryant's claims again in his latest attempt through a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to get out of prison on grounds that Sherman did a poor job defending him at trial.
With the testimony Friday of Walker Hauer and Colucci, Skakel's new lawyers tried to show that Sherman ignored information and witnesses that could have resulted in Skakel's acquittal, and failed to sufficiently investigate circumstances related to evidence of third-party culpability.
Colucci portrayed Sherman as an overly confident defense lawyer in love with the attention he was getting from the media. Skakel is a nephew of Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel Kennedy. He 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.
Colucci testified that he first worked with Sherman in the 1970s when Sherman was a prosecutor and Colucci was a narcotics investigator in Stamford. Over the years, the two men remained friends. Colucci testified how Sherman was touched when Colucci, while mourning the death of his father, reached out to Sherman after Sherman was sentenced in 2010 to a year and a day in federal prison for failing to pay about $420,000 in income taxes.
"I was quite worried about him," Colucci testified.
Colucci credited Sherman — who hired Colucci to work with him on Skakel's defense — with helping him launch his career as a private investigator of high-profile cases. Colucci has appeared on television and has been the subject of news articles because of his private-eye work.
But during the Skakel trial, Colucci said, he saw a change in how Sherman, "a very good attorney," did his work.
"Can I say Hollywood?" Colucci asked Judge Thomas Bishop.
Colucci said celebrity parties, walking the "red carpet" and skiing in Vail "took full charge of his life at that point." He recalled seeing a photograph in a magazine of Sherman on the slopes snowboarding, holding cell phones to both ears.
When he went to his office, he said, he would find Sherman "constantly" on the phone with journalists. During the trial, Colucci said, Sherman would often turn to TV reporters seated in the courtroom gallery while prosecutors were questioning witnesses.
During cross-examination this week, Sherman, who has appeared frequently on national television as a legal analyst, denied that he focused more on the media attention and less on Skakel's defense, and he maintained that the Skakel family wanted a lawyer who was media-savvy.
Colucci recalled that defense witnesses struggled to get in touch with Sherman before their testimony and that some were unable to go through what they were going to say before they took the witness stand. In his latest petition, Skakel accuses Sherman of failing to properly prepare defense witnesses for their testimony.
"They were petrified," Colucci said about the defense witnesses. They "were not used to this type of environment. They just wanted to know what was going to happen to them on the stand."
Colucci also said Sherman ignored his pleas before Skakel's trial to contact two New York detectives who were familiar with the criminal record and extensive drug use of trial witness Gregory Coleman.
Coleman told police that Skakel had confessed the murder to him. Coleman died of a drug overdose in Rochester, N.Y., in 2001, about four months after he testified at Skakel's probable cause hearing.
Colucci said the New York investigators told Colucci that Coleman had "zero credibility" and were familiar with his long arrest record, a recent severe weight loss he had, and abscesses he had on his arms from shooting up drugs.
"They couldn't believe he was going to be a star witness," Colucci said.
Colucci said he raced to tell Sherman about the investigators. "He said, 'I'll take care of it," Colucci said. Three weeks later, Colucci asked Sherman if he called the investigators and Sherman told him he still planned to.
"I doubt very much if he ever reached them," Colucci said.
In testimony earlier this week Sherman said he found Coleman's testimony "patently unbelievable," and told the judge, "I never thought I needed a smoking gun to shoot down Mr. Coleman's testimony."
Walker Hauer's testimony Friday brought court spectators back to the wealthy Belle Haven neighborhood of Greenwich in the mid-1970s. Skakel and Moxley were neighbors.
On the night Moxley was killed, Walker Hauer said, youths in the neighborhood were planning for "mischief night," when they would tent trees with toilet paper, cover windows with shaving cream, and play ding-dong-ditch. Walker Hauer said her parents would not let her go out and instead she attended a Red Cross meeting.
But Moxley promised to call her friend at 9:30 that night to fill her in on what was happening.
"I felt as if I would be missing out on all of the fun that evening," Walker Hauer said.