Courthouse prepares for Skakel trial
By Kerry Tesoriero - Greenwich Time

STAMFORD - A wastebasket caught water dripping through torn ceiling tiles just feet from jurors during the last murder trial at state Superior Court in Stamford.

This small, aging, mildew-ridden courthouse, where judges apologize to juries for the cramped quarters and uncomfortable climate, is where juvenile court Judge Maureen Dennis ruled that Michael Skakel will be tried for the 1975 murder of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley.

The courts in the Stamford/Norwalk Judicial District are so ill-equipped to handle such a high-profile trial that Skakel's attorney Michael Sherman, who wants the case heard here, yesterday lambasted the facilities.

"It's inadequate to house a small-claims trial," Sherman said yesterday of the Stamford criminal court building.

"I want the case tried in Stamford," Sherman said. "I think it should be tried by a jury of his peers.

"For umpteen years, Stamford has been considered (by state officials) as more or less part of Westchester County, and we're now going to suffer for it in terms of having a high-profile case tried in a facility that looks like a court in Mayberry."

Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy and the late Robert F. Kennedy, is accused of beating and stabbing to death his 15-year-old neighbor using a 6-iron from his mother's set of golf clubs. He also was 15 when Moxley's body was found on the grounds of her parents' home in the gated community of Belle Haven in Greenwich.

No arrests were made in the case until last year, when a one-judge grand jury in Bridgeport indicted Skakel for murder.

Skakel's trial has attracted national media attention and is arguably the biggest criminal case ever in Fairfield County.

The last trials to draw the nation's eyes to the decrepit Stamford courthouse were those of Darien rapist Alex Kelly in 1986 and 1997. Kelly's first trial for the rape and kidnapping of his neighbor, Adrienne Bak Ortolano, ended in a mistrial. He fled the country on the eve of the intended second trial in 1987, but eventually surrendered to authorities in Switzerland, returning to the United States in 1995.

Attorneys and court planners involved in Kelly's trials have said the building's small size made it difficult to seat the swarms of national media. Cramped quarters also increased the risk of exposing witnesses and jurors to media questions, sources said.

The scores of reporters expected to seek access to the trial makes Kelly's trials seem like small potatoes, attorneys involved in those trials have said.

"Kelly schmelly," said Sherman, who was Kelly's attorney until the then-Darien High School wrestling star fled the country.

Another lawyer involved in the Kelly trials declined to comment because the case remains on appeal. But he said Skakel's trial will make Kelly's seem "minuscule."

Yesterday, State's Attorney Eugene Callahan hedged questions about the building's appropriateness for Skakel's trial.

"As I understand Judge Dennis' decision, the venue is the Stamford/Norwalk Judicial District, so it could also be in the civil courthouse or the Norwalk courthouse," Callahan said.

"I don't know how large a factor (the building) is. What's the alternative? To rent a hall?"

Also unknown is who will plan media and public access to the trial.

The district once employed a trial court administrator, Lorraine Murphy, to arrange accommodations and media access to high-profile trials. Murphy oversaw those matters during Kelly's Stamford trials and the Norwalk trial of multiple murderer Geoffrey Ferguson, the Redding landlord convicted of shooting to death five men, then destroying their bodies by setting fire to the house three of them rented from him.

Murphy also made press arrangements for the 1989 trial of Richard Crafts, who killed his wife, Helle, in Newtown in 1986, then disposed of her body using a woodchipper. That first trial was televised, and a video feed allowed media to watch the trial live from a room in the basement of the Norwalk courthouse.

Murphy was reassigned recently to a position in Bridgeport, where she writes court manuals. No one was hired to perform her former functions in the Stamford and Norwalk courts. She declined to comment.

Yesterday, Superior Court Judge John Kavanewsky, who was assigned last week to administer Skakel's case, sealed the criminal file and ordered Skakel to appear for arraignment and other proceedings at 10 a.m. Feb. 21 at a courthouse within the Stamford/Norwalk Judicial District.

The courtroom for the hearing could be in Stamford or Norwalk. The order does not specify the location.

Prosecutors may argue at that hearing that Bridgeport is the proper venue for Skakel's trial. State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict, who is prosecuting the case, works from an office in Bridgeport's Superior Court building. And in 1975, when Moxley was slain, Bridgeport was where Greenwich's serious criminal cases were handled.

Meanwhile, Court TV is expected to ask permission to televise Skakel's trial.

"Our plan is to apply as soon as a judge is assigned to for the trial," Court TV publicist Ellie Jostad said.

Allowing Court TV to televise the trial also would open the door to providing a video feed to a room outside the courtroom where more reporters would have live access to the trial.

The state forbids video feeds in courtrooms unless a trial is televised and the presiding judge allows the feed.

Space problems also would be resolved if the trial is delayed until completion of a new, eight-story courthouse, which is being erected behind the existing buildings on Hoyt Street in Stamford.

Court officials are planning to move into the new courthouse in late December. Yesterday, Sherman said he expects Skakel's case will be ready for trial before then.

"I can't imagine it's going to take that long" to come to trial, Sherman said.

Judicial Branch officials said the venue for the case is in Kavanewsky's hands.

"Right now I can't even comment further on the trial. It's too soon," said Virginia Apple, spokeswoman for the branch's Office of External Affairs. "It's assigned to Judge Kavanewsky."

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