NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel turned to attorney Mickey Sherman more than a decade ago to defend him against a murder that had haunted his wealthy family for a quarter-century. Now Skakel, the nephew of Ethel Kennedy, is turning against Sherman, saying the media-savvy attorney blew the trial.
Skakel was convicted in 2002 of fatally beating neighbor Martha Moxley with a golf club in wealthy Greenwich in 1975 when they were 15-year-olds. His lawyer says Skakel will file an appeal in coming weeks, challenging Sherman's effectiveness. Skakel's supporters say Sherman was distracted by the limelight and financial troubles, even though he was paid more than $1 million in legal fees.
"He was very open that he wanted to be a TV lawyer, he wanted to be famous," said Skakel's cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Kennedy said that Sherman allowed a police officer to be picked for the jury and failed to prepare witnesses for testimony about a 25-year-old crime. Sherman also conducted an inept cross-examination of a witness who challenged Skakel's alibi, Kennedy said.
"It's a hard trial to win," Kennedy said of the new appeal. "It's as good a case as you get."
Sherman did not return telephone calls seeking comment, but said of Skakel in 2007, "I believe I did everything humanly possible to persuade a jury that he was not guilty."
Skakel is serving 20 years to life in prison.
Sherman, 63, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Greenwich and attended the University of Connecticut School of Law.
In 1991, he gained fame when he successfully defended a Vietnam veteran against a manslaughter charge by claiming the man suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a novel defense at the time. When Court TV debuted the same year, he was on its inaugural show.
Sherman's TV profile grew as he offered legal opinion on hot cases like O.J. Simpson's before he landed the job as Skakel's lawyer in the late 1990s. He pitched himself as a public relations expert who could rein in the bad publicity done to the Skakel family name, according to Kennedy.
Sherman says in a book he wrote that he finds it odd when lawyers go on TV during their trials. Clients should be upset when they do, he wrote.
"Maybe that's some kind of sideways apology to Michael for blowing a trial that a first-year law student could not have lost," Kennedy said.
Skakel's family says Sherman billed them $150,000 for time he spent with the media.
Skakel's current attorney, Hope Seeley, has said Sherman's financial difficulties resulted in a lack of funds set aside to investigate the case before the 2002 trial. Sherman has denied that.
Sherman's ex-wife accused him last year of failing to pay $16,000 monthly alimony, instead leading a high life that included luxury vacations, expensive hotels and restaurants, costly entertainment, dues at exclusive country clubs and expensive clothing. He promised in October to pay $241,000 to her by 2012.
In 2007, his law firm partner, Joseph Richichi, was sentenced to 16 months in prison for failing to pay more than $600,000 in taxes.
Richichi blamed his own failing health on Sherman — saying Sherman incurred more than $1.1 million in federal tax liens on the property they owned, bounced checks and failed to pay back $25,000 Richichi loaned him to build a house.
Skakel, who's spent years trying and failing to overturn his conviction, lost an appeal in April before the Connecticut Supreme Court. But that ruling provides a road map of issues Skakel's new attorneys likely will raise.
The justices said Sherman failed to track down a witness who challenged testimony by a former classmate that Skakel confessed to the crime, failed to obtain reports investigators had prepared on earlier suspects and did not call experts to challenge Skakel's alleged confessions.
"You have the highest court in Connecticut saying there was deficient representation in several aspects," said Gene Riccio, an attorney who represented an earlier suspect in the Moxley murder.
Kevin Burke, a former district attorney in Massachusetts and Sherman's longtime friend, said Sherman enjoys the spotlight but was focused during the Skakel trial.
"He took it very seriously, and he certainly was devastated by the result," Burke said. "He is a very talented trial attorney. He's a brilliant communicator. He's good with juries. I don't think he was anything but on the top of his game during the course of that trial."
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