Potential Skakel jurors to be questioned
By Lindsay Faber - Greenwich Time
One hundred local residents will have the chance to be named a juror for Michael Skakel's murder trial when jury selection begins in state Superior Court in Stamford tomorrow.
Of those 100, 25 will be randomly selected for consideration as jurors via computer. They will listen to a clerk read an order from Superior Court Judge John Kavanewsky Jr, cautioning them about reading anything further about the case. Then the 25 will drive to Norwalk Superior Court for questioning by prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The lawyers can reject 18 jurors without justification and an unlimited number with an acceptable reason. Randomly selected candidates will arrive in Norwalk every day until a full jury is chosen. The process is expected to take about four weeks.
Ultimately, 12 jurors and four alternates will spend at least five weeks deliberating the fate of Skakel, 41, who is on trial for the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley.
The jurors will not be sequestered but are forbidden to discuss the case or read anything about it.
Connecticut's jury selection process, called voir dire, allows attorneys to question prospective jurors individually. It is time-consuming but often considered a benefit to both sides because people tend to be more candid during that process, several trial consultants said.
"A lot of people think voir dire is a defense tool, but both sides do benefit by full disclosure because they ask tough questions of the jurors," said Joe Guastaferro, a trial consultant based in Chicago. "It's a tremendous advantage for both sides."
Nevertheless, considerable issues are likely to come up during the jury selection process, the consultants said.
Jury selection expert Andrew Sheldon, who is based in Atlanta, worked on the murder trial of Byron De La Beckwith who was convicted in 1994 of the 1963 assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Trying a case decades after a murder creates a unique set of circumstances for potential jurors, Sheldon said.
For example, it will be a challenge for the lawyers to glean from prospective jurors how invested they feel in the case, he said.
"There are people in the jury pool who are of a very different age than if this had happened under their noses," Sheldon said. "It may not be fresh to them. They may not care about it. The issue is how to make it relevant so that it is important as more than just a historical event."
It is difficult to predict what type of juror might best support Skakel's defense, Guastaferro said.
"You'd have to know what the people believe about punishment and about the system. I don't think that stacks up against racial lines, usually."
The amount of pre-trial publicity may be the biggest obstacle to selecting an unbiased jury because it may have affected people's opinions, several experts said.
"If people know about it, their impressions may be shaped already and voir dire is going to be handicapped," said Steven Penrod, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "They can't be sure if they ask general questions like 'What do you know about the case?' that people are going to reveal everything they know."
For example, he said, potential jurors may know about Gregory Coleman, a classmate of Skakel's at the Elan School in the late 1970s. During a preliminary hearing in April, Coleman said that while he and Skakel were residents of a substance abuse treatment facility, Skakel told him that he had killed Moxley with a golf club and bragged that he would get away with murder because he was a Kennedy. Coleman later died of an apparent drug overdose. Skakel is a nephew of Ethel Skakel Kennedy and the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
"There may be critical things, such as the statement by the deceased friend, that are particularly biasing and prejudicial if people know about them, but they may not be featured as trial evidence and it's hard to ask people to forget about that," Penrod said.
A community attitude survey could have provided insight on potential jurors' attitudes, the consultants said.
"Generally what a defendant will try to do is find out what the jury panel looks like ahead of time, what their attitudes are, and if they're savvy they will use a trial consultant to do a supplemental questionaire," Sheldon said.
But defense attorney Michael Sherman said he has no plans to hire a jury consultant nor does he plan to conduct a community survey.
"I know it's the in thing to do to hire an expert, but I just don't think I need it," said Sherman, who works in Stamford and grew up in Greenwich. "I'm from this area. I think I have as good a feel for the folks around here as any expert would."
In addition, the law does not require that potential jurors know nothing about the case.
"The key issue is do they have strong opinions either way that are not capable of being changed," Sherman said.
State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict also said publicity will be a factor, but not a major issue, in jury selection.
"Just because someone knows about the case doesn't automatically disqualify them," Benedict said.
The trial begins May 7.