Courthouse cleans up for Skakel trial
By David Gurliacci - Greenwich Time

NORWALK -- John Wiseman stood for half an hour in a crowded courtroom in state Superior Court in Norwalk before he could get a seat. Then he stood in line almost as long to get into the clerk's office.

"It's like, hurry up and wait," Wiseman said.

At least twice last month and again Friday when Wiseman was there, the main courtroom at the 17 Belden Ave. courthouse was closed as state workers renovated the larger regular courtroom for the upcoming Michael Skakel murder trial.

Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy and the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, is charged in the 1975 killing of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley. State judicial officials moved the trial to Norwalk after it became clear that construction on the new courthouse in Stamford will not be finished in time.

The 173-seat main courtroom in Norwalk will be out of commission until the Skakel trial gets under way. Jury selection is slated to begin April 2 and the trial possibly by May 7.

Each time the main courtroom is closed, dozens of people, sometimes more than 100, are moved into a smaller courtroom, and conditions are not likely to improve once the trial starts.

Already, 65 local and national media outlets have requested seats for the Skakel trial. State officials have said they will not reserve space for the large television satellite trucks to be used by an expected 19 TV stations or more.

The Norwalk courthouse provides no parking except for courthouse employees and jurors. But for the Skakel trial, parking spaces will be reserved for reporters. Some state employees, such as prosecutors, will have their spaces moved elsewhere in the lot to accommodate reporters.

Though the state provides no parking for most people at the courthouse, the city owns the nearby Yankee Doodle parking garage about a block away on Burnell Boulevard, where parking is free. Most people park on side streets or across Belden Avenue in the parking lot of River View Plaza shopping mall.

When Pathmark supermarket opened at the mall a few years ago, management was concerned enough about parking to tow the cars of courthouse visitors. Now, with much of the retail space in the mall unused, the lot is usually 75 percent full when court is in session.

Susan Valente of Ritz Realty, which manages the mall, said she could not comment on whether television satellite trucks will be allowed to rent space in the mall parking lot or whether there have been any requests made.

Court TV, CNN, Fox News, broadcast networks and Connecticut, New York and Boston television stations have applied for seats at the trial.

The media already are in the city, getting their bearings. On Friday, a television satellite truck with the large dishes folded down on its roof was parked in the mall lot. The words CNN America Inc. were printed on the sides of the white truck, which took up four parking spaces.

Inside the courthouse, state workers are busy.

To prepare the main courtroom for the murder trial, a jury box will be built in the front and a temporary sound system will be installed. The courtroom will get new carpeting for the first time since the courthouse was built in 1977.

Most of the work will be done on weekends or other times when the main courtroom is not in use, said Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, a spokeswoman for the state Judicial Branch.

The heating, ventilation and air conditioning system sometimes has worked poorly, overheating in fall and spring or overcooling in the summer. In 2000, lawyers, judges and others had to raise their voices to compete with noise from workers on the roof above the main courtroom. Before that, some people said they were feeling sick as they sat in the courtroom, a court employee said.

Some ventilation openings were closed as a result of the work and no further problems have been reported, though the ventilation system is being looked at again for the trial, Stearley-Hebert said.

At least twice in January, Judge John Kavanewsky Jr., who will oversee the Skakel trial, interrupted testimony during a manslaughter trial to let a janitor adjust the Thermostat behind the witness stand after some jurors had trouble keeping warm.

While Skakel is on trial, people such as Wiseman who use the courthouse may find themselves waiting. Standing in front of the clerk's office last week, Wiseman questioned the wisdom of the change of venue.

"They waited 20 years" for the Skakel trial, he said. "They can wait another couple of months."

Cory Lewis of Newtown, who waited in court about 20 minutes, didn't like it.

"I've seen enough of the Kennedys in court and stuff," Lewis said. "People are always getting stiffed by bigger people, no matter what -- even standing up in the courtroom. I kind of resent the fact that they're going to renovate (the main courtroom) for the Skakel trial."

Not everyone who had to stand in the courthouse Friday agreed. Danny Bacco of Stamford said he waited 45 minutes but it was all right because "it's half the time of the Stamford courtroom."

Dana Hoenig of Norwalk, who stood for 15 minutes, said she didn't feel inconvenienced, other than that there were no parking spaces.

It has not been decided how to avoid overcrowding for the court's regular activities, Stearley-Hebert said. Officials don't know whether another judge will be assigned to the courthouse to fill in for Kavanewsky, or whether some Norwalk trials might be moved to Stamford or delayed until after the Skakel trial. The courthouse has four courtrooms.

The courtrooms have benches attached to the floor for public seating. The state fire code stipulates that a public room can hold one person per 18 inches of bench space. After that, the room is considered in violation of the code and can be evacuated by fire marshals.

Enforcement of the code in a state building is at the discretion of the state Fire Marshal's office, Deputy Norwalk Fire Marshal John McGuirk said.

If there are plenty of judicial marshals in the building, McGuirk said, that could influence how strictly the code is enforced. Judicial marshals could help everyone evacuate the building during an emergency, which is the purpose of occupancy limits, he said.

But some are looking forward to the Skakel trial.

A Dunkin' Donuts and the McDonald's restaurant in the mall already count many courthouse visitors as customers. A couple of blocks away, Carol Kasmarski, co-owner of the Foodworks restaurant at 83 Wall St., is making plans to handle extra business.

Kasmarski is considering whether to start selling box lunches to go. The sandwiches could be made in advance, she said, so even if the little restaurant gets crowded, customers won't have to spend time standing on their feet, waiting around.

Copyright (c) 2002, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

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