VERNON, Conn. (AP) — The former attorney for Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel was accused Tuesday of getting caught up in the media spotlight surrounding his client's high-profile murder trial and making fundamental errors from jury selection through closing arguments.
Skakel's latest appeal trial began Tuesday with his former lawyer defending himself against accusations he failed to competently defend Skakel when he was convicted of murder in 2002.
Skakel, the 52-year-old nephew of Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel, is serving 20 years to life in prison for the 1975 golf club bludgeoning of Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley when both of them were 15.
Skakel argues that during the trial, attorney Michael Sherman failed to challenge the state's star witness and obtain evidence pointing to other suspects, put a police officer on the jury and failed to prepare witnesses.
"Mr. Sherman was so mesmerized by the media frenzy in this case that instead of doing certain fundamental things like talking to witnesses he got sucked into the whole thing," said Hubert Santos, Skakel's current attorney.
Santos said Sherman once traded an interview to get tickets to the Academy Awards.
Sherman denied he was distracted by media attention and even said his ability to deal with the media was one of the reasons Skakel hired him.
Sherman, the first witness to take the stand in the appeal trial, said he had been confident before he would win his case. He has previously said he did all he could to prevent Skakel's conviction.
But Santos contends Sherman had significant financial troubles and didn't devote enough money to defend the case.
He said Sherman failed to investigate a change in the account given by Skakel's brother Thomas, an early suspect in the case. He said Thomas Skakel in the 1990s told investigators for the first time that he and Martha were intimate the night she died and that he was a habitual liar who had a "long neurological and psychiatric history" and a history of temper outbursts.
Skakel's attorneys didn't accuse Thomas Skakel of the crime but said Sherman could have introduced at trial the statement he made to a private investigative firm hired by the Skakel family. They also noted that police in 1976 sought an arrest warrant for Thomas Skakel for the crime, though prosecutors turned them down for lack of evidence.
Sherman said there wasn't enough evidence against Thomas Skakel to meet a threshold that would have allowed him to make such a defense. He also noted he had spent days during the trial pointing the finger at another early suspect.
"I don't believe in putting out a buffet table of alleged suspects," Sherman said.
Thomas Skakel is on a list of potential witnesses to be called at the trial.
Prosecutor Susann Gill dismissed the arguments about Thomas Skakel as "rank speculation" and said there was no proof that Sherman could have presented a defense based on the theory that Thomas Skakel committed the crime.
Attorneys for Skakel argue that Sherman failed to challenge the state's star witness, Gregory Coleman, by finding witnesses who later rejected his claim that Skakel confessed to the crime. Coleman testified that Skakel confessed when they attended Elan, a reform school in Maine, in the late 1970s and said one of a few classmates he named may have heard it.
Sherman said Monday Coleman was "patently unbelievable so I never felt I needed a smoking gun to shoot down Mr. Coleman's testimony."
Santos pressed Sherman on other fronts, including not obtaining a police sketch of a man seen walking near the Moxley property the night of the murder and his failure to address a lead investigator's plan to write a book on the case.
Skakel's defense contends the sketch resembled an early suspect and the defense would have been aided by a police profile report on that person.
Sherman said he tried to obtain the sketch but didn't get it before trial and acknowledged the profile would have been helpful because investigators at the time backed up Skakel's alibi.
Police concluded the sketch was of a neighbor and prosecutors said the profile was hearsay and not admissible.
Skakel, who lost a bid for parole last year, is hoping to get out of prison through a writ of habeas corpus arguing he was deprived of his constitutional right to effective legal representation when Sherman was his attorney.
Santos argues his client's conviction is based on two witnesses of dubious credibility and contends the verdict likely would have been different if Sherman had conducted an appropriate investigation, obtained evidence and challenged inappropriate state evidence.
Gill counters that Skakel's conviction came after more than a dozen witnesses testified that he made incriminating statements, including three direct confessions.
Skakel has lost two appeals before the Connecticut Supreme Court.