Months before Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel went to trial in 2002 for the 1975 murder of his teenage neighbor Martha Moxley, his lawyer, Mickey Sherman, told a Las Vegas audience, "I like to enjoy myself doing these things."
Lawyers representing Skakel in his latest bid for freedom seized on those words during a hearing Wednesday in Superior Court in Rockville on Skakel's claim that Sherman was ineffective at trial.
Lawyer Hubert J. Santos used a recording from Sherman's October 2001 lecture at a meeting of the Nevada Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in an attempt to show that Sherman was "mesmerized" by the media spotlight and spent more time talking to journalists, attending social functions and traveling instead of preparing for Skakel's defense.
State's attorneys had objected to the tape being used as evidence but the judge allowed it.
During the lecture, Sherman played a litany of television broadcasts about the Skakel case for the audience in conjunction with a folksy narrative in which he made fun of some of the segments as well as himself.
He recalled on the audiotape "getting beaten up by Katie Couric," or "Miss Nice," as he called her during one TV interview. He said he "took a pass" on appearing on "The View" but took up publisher Tina Brown's offer to trade an interview for "Talk" magazine for access to "the Academy Awards and all the cool parties," including a "Sex and the City" launch party.
Sherman said he told Brown she was "playing" him "like a fine Stradivarius" to get the interview, and it was working.
On the tape, he criticized various journalists and their focus on Skakel's Kennedy ties while discussing books, articles and websites about the case. He joked about his new-found notoriety.
"I'm like one notch below Bin Laden on these message boards," Sherman told the crowd. "I can do no right with these people."
When a TV reporter called Sherman's cross-examination of a witness "brilliant," Sherman asked the audience, "Did everyone hear that?" and they laughed.
Sherman told the crowd that renowned defense attorney Barry Scheck had warned him at the time to "keep below the radar" and "keep television appearances down."
Skakel family members seated in the courtroom gallery laughed when Santos questioned Sherman about why he rented a beach cabana in Florida for his pre-trial interviews with Skakel and why he had his motorcycle shipped there. Testimony showed that Sherman had traveled several times to Florida and California and other locales beginning in 1998 and up until the 2002 trial.
Sherman insisted the trips were not for personal reasons and said his motorcycle was shipped so he would not have to rent a car.
"The bottom line is I was there for Michael Skakel. ... I was doing my job," Sherman said.
Under cross-examination by Fairfield County Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Susann E. Gill, Sherman said he was hired by the Skakel family in part because "they wanted a lawyer who was media-savvy."
"I received nothing but positive feedback from the family," Sherman said.
During a court break, Sherman said the topic at the Las Vegas meeting he was asked to speak at was about how lawyers should handle the media in high-profile cases.
"It was meant to be entertainment," he said. "That was pretty clear."
When asked why he spoke about the case prior to trial, something defense lawyers often avoid, Sherman responded: "Everyone in the world knew about the case, there was no way not to. The question is, did I say anything inappropriate?"
Cross-examination of Sherman continues Thursday.
Skakel's latest bid for freedom stems from a petition he filed for a writ of habeas corpus in which Skakel argues that he was wrongly imprisoned owing to constitutional defects at his trial, including that Sherman was ineffective in his defense of Skakel. Such a petition is often a convict's last resort to get a verdict overturned or a prison sentence reduced.
Skakel alleges that Sherman failed to investigate potentially exculpatory evidence, failed to challenge the use of certain evidence at trial, gave poor closing arguments, was incompetent in his selection of jurors and failed to properly prepare defense witnesses for their testimony.
Sherman's testimony on Wednesday was halted for a short time when Santos brought witness Constance Narayanan to the witness stand. Narayanan did not testify at Skakel's 2002 trial.
On Wednesday she recalled to Judge Thomas Bishop that while attending the controversial former Elan School for troubled youths in Maine, she witnessed students "beating Michael alive" with a wooden paddle. They also forced him to wear signs saying, "I killed Martha Moxley," she said.
She said she was brutalized at the school, as well, and had to be hospitalized for her injuries. She said for three months she had to wear a straitjacket and still suffers from mental health issues.
Prosecutors' case against Skakel was built largely on circumstantial evidence and statements by students who attended the Elan School with Skakel in the late 1970s who said Skakel had confessed to killing Moxley.
Santos questioned Sherman about why he did not have Narayanan testify at the 2002 trial. Sherman said at the time, Narayanan's father did not want her to testify because of the trauma she had endured at the school.
During cross-examination, Gill probed Sherman further about Narayanan's absence at the trial.
"Did you make a humane decision?" Gill asked Sherman.
"I take full responsibility for that," Sherman said. "I could have coerced her with a subpoena."
Sherman added that he had other witnesses at trial testify about the abuse at the school, "to show that Elan was a brutal place."
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 wealthy Belle Haven neighborhood in Greenwich. Skakel, now 52, 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. He is serving a prison sentence of 20 years to life.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun