Skakel attorney in the spotlight
By Kerry Tesoriero - Greenwich Time
STAMFORD - Michael Sherman, Court TV pundit and former attorney for Darien rapist Alex Kelly, is no stranger to celebrity.
Yet in the week after his client Michael Skakel was arrested and charged with murder in the 1975 slaying of 15-year-old Martha Moxley, Sherman's public exposure has stunned even him.
"I think the publicity is getting to me," he joked recently with fellow attorneys. "Last night, I opened the refrigerator to get a glass of water. The light came on, and I started a press conference."
Sherman, 53, known as "Mickey," has enjoyed a reputation locally for winning acquittals and earning favorable plea bargains for clients in tough criminal cases, and using whatever legal tactic he can imagine to succeed.
Last week, he was elusive about how he will defend Skakel, 39, who was Moxley's 15-year-old neighbor in the exclusive gated Greenwich community of Belle Haven when her body was discovered under a tree on her property.
Some lawyers speculate he will try to keep the 24-year-old case in Juvenile Court. Others say he will seek a Fairfield County jury of well-to-do peers. Sherman simply professes that Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, did not kill Martha Moxley.
"It's a fascinating case, and it will be extremely challenging, yet from everything I've seen, I believe that Michael Skakel is innocent," said Sherman, a Stamford resident.
First light of publicity
Sherman's maverick style first caught the press' attention in 1985. Sherman represented John McGraw, 21, who stood accused of raping his 50-year-old landlady in Stamford.
After the jury in McGraw's first trial could not reach a verdict, Sherman hired one of the jurors - a 21-year-old waitress named Lisa Lord - to be his consultant at the next trial.
A prosecutor objected to Sherman's method, arguing that it breached the sanctity of juror deliberations.
But a Superior Court judge saw differently and allowed the technique.
That judge was George Thim, the same man who served as the one-man grand jury that indicted Skakel last week.
McGraw was convicted of first-degree sexual assault by the second jury.
A big fish who usually swims within the bounds of Stamford, Norwalk and Greenwich, Sherman has the kind of perspective on this area that out-of-town lawyers might lack, his peers say.
"He's the exact, right lawyer for the case," said Wayne Keeney, a Stamford defense attorney whose office is next door to Sherman's on Fifth Street. "He understands the town, because he grew up there himself."
Robert Bello, a Stamford attorney whose reputation rivals Sherman's, said, "I have nothing but the highest regard for Mickey as a lawyer. He has an ebullience about him, and when he's in court, he's a good lawyer. I'm sure these people checked him out, and they ought to be comfortable with him."
William Dow, an esteemed defense attorney in New Haven, faxed Sherman a tongue-in-cheek congratulatory message last week, asking how he intends to get Court TV cameras into Juvenile Court.
Case's lapsed time
Sherman said he believes the laws of 1975, not today, apply to Skakel. He declined to comment on whether he would appeal a transfer of the case to Superior Court.
"Mickey is one of the most skillful lawyers I know," Dow said. "He knows how to address a case on every level, in the courtroom, to a jury, to a judge. He knows how to put his client's image in the public eye."
The fact that 24 years have passed since Martha's killing may help Sherman at trial, Dow said.
"The question is, 'Can you apply today's laws to yesterday's events?' " Dow said.
Conquering the passage of time is a struggle for a prosecutor, said Senior Assistant State's Attorney Bruce Hudock, whose prosecution of Alex Kelly eight years after he was accused of raping Adrienne Bak Ortolano resulted in a 16-year prison sentence for the former Darien High School wrestling star.
Sherman was Kelly's lawyer when Kelly fled before his first trial. He did not represent Kelly after his capture.
Hudock's hardest task in trying Kelly was to bring the jury back in time to when the victim was a 16-year-old girl in braces, he said.
"The jurors were looking at a 26-year-old woman," who appeared successful, not like a shy victim, he said.
Witnesses were relying on faded memories. And Hudock was also battling a human tendency to forgive past transgressions.
"It's not that we forgive people for a crime, but the hard edge of unforgiving is softened by the passage of time," Hudock said.
Yet time also has changed the image of Michael Skakel, who in 1975 was a sweet-faced boy. Today he is a heavyset, gray-haired man.
Sherman said he believes a jury would see past Skakel's appearance.
"I have a great belief in the jury system," Sherman said. "The jurors become sharp judges of facts and even better judges of character. That's why he'll do fine."
Sherman grew up near the Port Chester, N.Y., border on Halock Street in Byram.
He graduated from Greenwich High School, attended the University of Connecticut as an undergraduate and a law student, then got a job as a clerk in state Superior Court in Stamford. He worked for a year in the public defender's office. When a position opened up in the state's attorney's office, Sherman was hired as a prosecutor. He worked for the state for four years.
Then in 1976, he teamed up with a high school classmate Joseph Richichi to start a private law firm.
Sherman was a prosecutor when Martha was killed.
Assumption of innocence
He has followed the case since its origins but was hired by the Skakels only recently, when the grand jury investigation began 18 months ago, he said.
"From all the evidence I've seen or been privy to, including and especially the time line, he couldn't have committed this crime," Sherman said. "He had an incontrovertible alibi."
Michael Skakel initially told police that he returned from a relative's house and went to bed.
Later he told investigators that his father hired from Sutton Associates that he got out of bed that night and climbed a tree near Martha's window, throwing pebbles at it to wake her. When she didn't come to the window he masturbated in the tree, he said.
"There's a very reasonable and rational explanation," Sherman said, one that will likely come out during a trial.
The grand jury probe came on the tails of the publication of "Murder in Greenwich," a book written by former Los Angeles police investigator Mark Fuhrman, whose testimony at the O.J. Simpson murder trial was tainted by hints of racism.
Fuhrman's book hypothesized that Michael Skakel, not his brother, Thomas, as had been speculated, killed Moxley. Fuhrman suggests in the book that the attack on Moxley could have happened later than the Greenwich police have determined.
"Mark says if we change the time of the death É that's great," Sherman said. "If we change the location of the death, O.J. could have done it."
Sherman said he believes Greenwich police determined the time of death properly.
"They didn't do that by guessing," he said. "They did it by the sound of dogs barking. You just can't change that to convict someone you'd like to see convicted. Mark wrote his book using the formula, 'Michael Skakel committed this crime,' not 'Let's see who did this,' or 'Let's look for the truth.' "
Some have remarked on the toll 25 years have taken on Skakel's appearance. Sherman acknowledges that Martha's death has plagued his client, but not guilt.
"He grieves for her as everyone else does," the attorney said. "She was a friend, a neighbor, and he's always grieved what he lost. There's a dark cloud following him wherever he goes."
Despite Thim's finding of probable cause to arrest the Hobe Sound, Fla., resident, Sherman said there will be no plea bargain, because the state has no hard evidence against Skakel.
Sherman says he is not worried about the possible testimony of fellow students at the Elan School, where Skakel underwent drug treatment and allegedly confessed to Martha's murder.
"Concerned, yes; worried, no," Sherman said. "I don't believe their testimony is as damning as everyone seems to think that it may have been."
Lights, camera, litigate
Sherman said he remains uncertain whether the celebrity of the case will help or hinder his defense.
The publicity may well be what alerted the Skakels to Sherman's abilities, some have postulated.
Sherman appeared on the 1991 pilot of Court TV and has been a fixture on the network ever since. Other television programs - NBC's "Today" and MSNBC's "America After Hours" among them - also have called on him to analyze criminal cases.
He insists that television appearances have not affected his legal practice, and he was vague when asked about a courthouse rumor: that the Skakels hired him after watching him discuss the case on television.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know why they hired me."
What is certain is that, since his client's arrest, the public's demand for Sherman's screen image has skyrocketed.
"It felt a little like an anvil dropped on me," he said. "It's amazing to have every single network, '60 Minutes,' 'Today,' 'Dateline,' French television, German, Canada, Australia. There are 140 Internet articles on this case around the world. I have four screens of e-mail I have not opened."
He has had little sleep since the arrest and has been keeping a phone receiver to each ear.
"I knew it was big when F. Lee Bailey was on the phone this morning for about 20 minutes," he said, referring to the noted defense attorney. "That was pretty cool. He's calling me on my case. In my mind, I'm still the mediocre student from Byram."