Attorneys for Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel put his trial lawyer, Mickey Sherman, on the hot seat Tuesday, questioning him about evidence not used in the 2002 trial that sent his client to prison.
Skakel, 52, is serving 20 years to life for the 1975 murder of Greenwich teen Martha Moxley but is challenging his conviction in a hearing that began Tuesday in Superior Court in Rockville.
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Sherman, a high-profile veteran defense attorney, conceded in testimony Tuesday that some evidence, including a police sketch and investigators' profile reports of other possible suspects, "would have been helpful" at trial, but he defended his lack of expert witnesses for some aspects of Skakel's defense, saying he was worried about public perception.
"I didn't want to turn it into a rich-man's justice … that we could just buy experts," Sherman said.
Skakel is a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, the widow of assassinated presidential candidate and former U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Skakel, a neighbor of Moxley's, was not charged with beating her to death with a golf club until 2000, when he was 39.
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. Such a petition is often a convict's last resort to get a verdict overturned or a prison sentence reduced.
Skakel shook his head in apparent disagreement during parts of Sherman's testimony Tuesday — when Sherman denied that he ignored Skakel's plea to pass on a potential juror who sympathized with the Moxley family, and when he denied failing to advise Skakel of his right to testify.
Skakel's current lawyer, Hubert J. Santos, said Sherman was "mesmerized by the media" during the widely publicized case, though Sherman defended his time in the spotlight. Santos questioned whether Sherman spent time talking to journalists when he should have been working on the case and whether Sherman traded a magazine interview in exchange for tickets to the Academy Awards from publisher Tina Brown.
Sherman said he did get the tickets but downplayed Santos' claim that he had attended 16 parties as a result of the spotlight. Sherman said he went to two.
"That's the nature of a big case," Sherman said.
"You were drawn into the celebrity of the case, right?" Santos fired back.
"No," Sherman replied.
Santos consistently demanded simple "yes" or "no" answers from Sherman as Sherman tried to explain his decisions — explanations that were often followed by warnings from Judge Thomas Bishop not to elaborate.
In early questioning aimed at Sherman's experience, Santos seemed incredulous when Sherman could not recall the names of seven or eight murder defendants he said he represented all the way to verdict.
Sherman responded, "Believe it or not, I can't. I've been doing it for 41 years, sir."
Santos grilled Sherman about a police sketch of a man walking in the area of Moxley's home the night she was killed. Santos says the composite drawing — based on a description given to police by a private security guard at the wealthy Belle Haven community where both Moxley and Skakel lived — should have been used as exculpatory evidence by Sherman.
On a screen in the courtroom, Santos displayed the police sketch next to a photo of Kenneth Littleton, who did tutoring at the Skakel home and who Skakel's lawyer says originally was a chief suspect in Moxley's murder.
Sherman testified that he had not seen the sketch until after Skakel was convicted in 2002. He said that although he had filed two motions for police sketches, he never received one from prosecutors.
When shown the sketch Tuesday, Sherman said that when he first saw it after Skakel's conviction, "It didn't look like Michael Skakel, it looked like Kenneth Littleton or someone else."
He added: "We can all see the sketch right now. You don't need to be an expert in the case to make that conclusion. I don't mean to be facetious."
Asked if he would have shown the sketch had he seen it earlier, Sherman said he thought he would have had "a decent shot" at introducing it at trial. "It would have been helpful."
In court documents, Skakel's lawyers say Sherman did not specifically request a copy of the sketch, "the single most important piece of exculpatory evidence in the case." The state Supreme Court, in unanimously upholding Skakel's conviction in 2006, noted that the state should have turned over the sketch. However, because the sketch is mentioned in two reports that Sherman had in his possession before trial, the high court deemed it a harmless error, because Sherman had notice of the existence of the sketch and did not pursue it.
The investigation into Moxley's death cycled through several suspects, including Skakel's older brother, Tommy. On Tuesday, Santos pressed Sherman about why he didn't work harder to connect Tommy Skakel to the crime, particularly since police had applied in 1976 for an arrest warrant. Prosecutors never signed the warrant.
Sherman said Tommy Skakel's lawyer at the time told him Tommy Skakel would refuse to testify and would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Sherman said his defense focused on pointing the finger at Littleton and he questioned Santos as to why he would "switch gears" in the trial.
"I don't believe in putting out a buffet table of alleged suspects," Sherman said.
When questioning Sherman about whether Sherman was willing to shell out money for experts, Santos explored whether Sherman was paid $2.2 million to defend Skakel. Sherman recalled the figure more as "maybe over a million five," and said, "I didn't keep anything for myself. I spent everything on the case," a response that resulted in more head shaking from Skakel.
Sherman also faced questions about his handling of the trial testimony of two of Skakel's former Elan School classmates, including Gregory Coleman, a convicted felon with a history of drug addiction and mental health issues, who testified 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, court records show. Elan served as a residential substance abuse center for teens.
Sherman said he found Coleman's testimony "patently unbelievable. I never thought I needed a smoking gun to shoot down Mr. Coleman's testimony," Sherman said.
The hearing continues Wednesday.