Lawyer Gets Make-Or-Break Case
By LYNNE TUOHY - The Hartford Courant
January 30, 2000
Michael Skakel's lawyer, Mickey Sherman, is a risk-taker, a deal- maker and an irreverent prankster who's done some outrageous things to a few judges in this state.
The veteran Stamford lawyer and frequent Court TV commentator also is a highly respected trial lawyer who can sell his zealous defense of a client to a jury as well as a television audience.
``I think he was born to the theater, but I think every good trial attorney is,'' his close friend, Essex (Mass.) County District Attorney Kevin Burke, observed.
Sherman's life at 53 is kaleidoscopic. From the scuffed floors of Stamford Superior Court to the television studios of New York, in the company of chronic misdemeanants or his best friends, singer Michael Bolton and Court TV host Rikki Kleiman, Sherman moves facilely. Then he grabs his snowboard and strives for ``air time'' of a different ilk on some the country's most difficult slopes.
In Sherman, Skakel has not only a lawyer but a fine-tuned public relations machine. Sherman is widely known for his wit; it's an attention- grabber just to see him with a stern cast to his face and an edge in his voice when he vows there will be no plea bargain in this case because his client is innocent.
During a lengthy interview in his office last week - conducted amid the cacophony of two phones ringing, a barrage of e-mails ``bonging'' into his laptop computer and television news programs droning in one corner - Sherman said that after reading the arrest warrant affidavit charging Skakel with murder in the Martha Moxley case, he's ``as confident as ever.''
``It's not the age of the evidence,'' Sherman said of a murder that occurred more than 24 years ago. ``It's the quality of the evidence. And I don't think that's my concern. I think that's the state's problem.''
Sherman - who once had rubber duck feet dangling outside his closed briefcase while defending a client against charges of off-season hunting, and in another case brandished a live lobster in defense of a fisherman charged with hauling short lobsters - isn't factoring humor into his defense of Skakel.
Even the media-savvy Sherman, who was a regular on a raft of television shows during the O.J. Simpson trial and is a regular at Elaine's in New York, was awed by the international coverage of Skakel's arrest Jan. 19 and the demands for interviews and information since.
This is a career-maker of a case. By the same token, a single misstep and Sherman could be back in the prop room looking for those rubber duck feet.
``If I win, I'm a hero. If I lose, I'm not just a goat but a nationally publicized goat,'' Sherman said, without cracking a smile. ``It's enormous pressure.''
`Don't Look Guilty'
Sherman will not discuss even the age and gender of Skakel's baby, saying his client's privacy will be shattered enough without his assistance. He also will not discuss what evidence, including possible use of new DNA technology, prosecutors appear to have against Skakel. Sherman did say he had been ``totally convinced'' - even after 18 months of secret grand jury testimony that ended in December - there wouldn't be an arrest in the case.
Prosecutors did not notify Sherman in advance of the arrest warrant affidavit for Skakel or otherwise attempt to arrange the voluntary surrender of Skakel, who lives in the remote, gated community of Loblolly Bay along the intracoastal waterway in Hobe Sound, Fla.
Sherman learned of the impending arrest from reporters on the eve of Fairfield State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict's press conference. Skakel and family members were on a plane bound for Connecticut before deputies knocked on their door that morning.
Skakel's father, Rushton, is the brother of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, widow of Robert Kennedy. Skakel grew up amid a bevy of Kennedy cousins and enormous wealth.
Sherman met with Skakel, 39, at a secret location before he surrendered to Greenwich police.
``I did not tell him what to wear,'' Sherman said, brushing off reference to the critical reviews Skakel's casual turtleneck and jacket got. ``My only advice was, `Michael, you're not guilty, don't look guilty. When you walk in there don't put your head down, don't put your jacket over your head like a Mafia capo and don't sneer at the media. Just hold your head up high, walk straight, walk slow, and we'll deal with it.' And that's what he did. It's sad that was interpreted as some kind of arrogance,'' Sherman said.
``There's no way he could have appeared that would not have been spun negatively,'' Sherman said.
Sherman went into Jan. 19 with the strategy of spending the next 48 hours ``deflecting and diffusing'' the arrest. He appeared on a dozen national television shows, but turned down the ``tabloid television'' invitations.
The Skakels were next-door neighbors of the Moxleys when Martha, 15, was bludgeoned to death Oct. 30, 1975. Michael Skakel was 15 at the time; he admits in a 1998 book proposal that he had an enormous crush on her and also admits he was a ``full-blown, daily-drinking alcoholic by age 13,'' soon after his mother died of cancer.
Skakel also stated in the book proposal - which was aborted on Sherman's advice - that he is a recovering alcoholic and member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Sherman said Skakel hasn't had a drink in 17 years or so and describes him as a ``wonderful, compassionate, good- natured'' guy. ``There isn't a disengenuous bone in his body,'' Sherman said. He also steadfastly refuses to allow reporters access to Skakel.
No Stranger To The Spotlight
Sherman was on the inaugural show of Court TV in 1991, and his successful defense based on the post-traumatic stress disorder of a Vietnam veteran charged with murder, Roger Ligon, was among the cable network's first televised trials.
Kleiman said Sherman, a regular guest on her evening show, is both ``bright and irreverent. He's not afraid to give an opinion even if the opinion might be unpopular. He also injects humor, which I think is sorely lacking among lawyers. He certainly isn't bad for the eyes, either.
``I think Skakel is a great case for him,'' said Kleiman, herself a lawyer. ``It will make him a national name, if he isn't already. This is as big as it gets. This will put him another couple of rungs up the ladder.''
For Sherman, appearing on live talk shows to discuss legal issues is as exhilarating as snowboarding. ``It's like I'm on the outer fringe of journalism,'' Sherman said. ``The most exciting part to me is being involved in virtual news, when you're on live television and you don't know what's going to happen next. It's very adrenalizing,'' Sherman said.
Sherman routinely vacations with Bolton, whom he considers his best friend. They met through their daughters - Jamie Sherman and Isa Bolton, now 26 - who were best friends in high school.
Bolton recalled the first real time the men spent together. It was after a school function they had attended, when Bolton took Sherman up on his offer to play tennis on his lighted court. Some four or five hours later, with the games still tied and the clock tolling 3 a.m., each had found a kindred spirit in intensity and competitiveness.
``He's very disarming because he's so funny,'' Bolton said Friday. ``But I think Mickey would probably be the right attorney for just about any case because he is someone who gets it. There are people you walk through situations but you're not sure they have a grasp on whatever it is - personal, business, crisis. Mickey is the kind of guy who gets it right away. He's a mathematician when it comes to solving problems.''
`Postcards From Alex'
Sherman wound up testifying for his former client, Alex Kelly - the Darien High School wrestling star who fled the country in 1987 rather than face trial on charges he raped two teenage girls. It was Sherman who met with Kelly and his family just days before his trial was to begin and told them Kelly wasn't getting a fair shake from the court system because Superior Court Judge John Ronan had refused to try the cases separately. Kelly fled and remained a fugitive for nearly nine years.
Kelly's subsequent trials were highly publicized, and Sherman marvels that the enduring prank known as ``postcards from Alex'' was not revealed before now.
About a year after Kelly fled the country, Sherman was on vacation in Hawaii. On impulse, he sent Ronan a postcard, with a note about what a great time he was having and signed it ``Alex Kelly.'' Sherman, who says Ronan knew right away who was behind it, sent at least a dozen more cards from various exotic locations over the years. Several prosecutors and judges also got in on the act, and soon Ronan was inundated with postcards.
Ronan was not the only judge Sherman dared to tweak.
Stamford Superior Court Judge Martin L. Nigro presided over Richard Crafts' second murder trial, after the commercial pilot's first prosecution on charges he killed his wife, Helle, and shredded her body in a woodchipper ended in a mistrial. The defense had argued, among other things, there was insufficient evidence to prove Helle Crafts was dead.
The day after the guilty verdict was returned against Crafts, Sherman, who had nothing to do with the case, noticed a flower arrangement being delivered to Nigro. It was from his wife, on the occasion of their anniversary. Before the judge saw the arrangement, Sherman swiped the card and replaced it with another that read, ``Thanks for all your help. Helle.''
``Mickey's a risk-taker,'' Burke said. ``He was the one who went skydiving. He was the first one on a skateboard when no one knew what skateboards were. I remember having to drive Mickey to his wedding rehearsal dinner because he'd lost his license for speeding.''
Playing It Straight
But Sherman's taking no chances on the Skakel case. When filing motions during the grand jury investigation and now preparing to defend Skakel in juvenile court (Skakel was 15 at the time of the crime and, despite being 39 today, will be tried initially in juvenile court) Sherman has consulted experts and said he will continue to do so. Yet, he is adamant it won't become a ``dream team'' case and vowed he won't waste time with ``recreational litigation that's going no place.''
``We want this case resolved in a reasonable amount of time,'' Sherman said. ``We won't spend time on garbage issues. If it's important, we'll deal with it. If it's not, we'll move on.''
Despite some wealthy clients and a high profile, Sherman early on had to scrabble out a living. His father died when he was 15, his mother held down multiple jobs. As advertising manager of the University of Connecticut's Daily Campus newspaper, Sherman was known to barter for clothes and meals.
He graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1971, spent a year in the public defender's office in Stamford, then spent four years as a prosecutor before going into private practice.
Today, Mickey Sherman drives a Porsche. But he also spends most workdays trudging the few blocks from his office to Stamford Superior Court with a daily calendar of docket numbers. Where does he want to be in five years?
``Someplace else, I hope, where I don't spend my life grovelling at the local courthouse,'' Sherman said. There are signs he's on his way.
While dining in New York last week after the flurry of publicity over the Skakel case, a man interrupted him and asked, ``Who are you? I've been seeing you in the news.''
Sherman couldn't resist. ``My name is Elian Gonzalez,'' he replied. ``I'm from Cuba and they want to send me back to my father.''