Publicity not a factor in Skakel case
By Lindsay Faber - Greenwich Time

In the first week of jury selection in the State v. Michael Skakel, one of the most surprising elements has been how little the publicity of the case seems to have colored the opinions of prospective jurors.

It took four days before a potential juror said he could not sit on the jury because he had already made up his mind about the case and did not feel he could give Skakel a fair trial. Most thought that would happen sooner.

"It's remarkable it's taken us four days to get to this point," defense attorney Michael Sherman said during a break at state Superior Court in Norwalk. "It isn't nearly as big of a problem as everyone anticipated."

Surprisingly few of the jurors questioned remember anything about the case beyond a headline here and there in the local newspaper.

Skakel, a nephew of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, is accused of bludgeoning Belle Haven neighbor Martha Moxley to death with a golf club in 1975, when both were 15. After years of investigation, he was charged in January 2000. Other suspects included Skakel's brother, Thomas, and a family tutor, Kenneth Littleton.

In court, Sherman makes a point of asking all potential jurors how much they know about the case and whether they are avid readers of the local publications that cover it on a regular basis.

But the answer to his question usually goes something like this: "I've heard about it, but I don't really know about it."

One potential juror, when asked what he knew, said, "I believe Mr. Skakel was a friend of Miss Moxley's. I'm not really sure."

Another of the selected jurors said: "I haven't read anything on the case." She said she has not seen any television programs, magazine articles or books about the case. She had not heard of the three books written about it -- by Timothy Dumas, Dominick Dunne and Mark Fuhrman.

A third said, "All I remember thinking at the time is they're arresting this man after so many years. I don't know enough about this case, though. It really hasn't been a priority."

Even a Greenwich native who was dismissed from the jury because she went to high school with Skakel did not demonstrate a knowledge of the facts of the case when questioned in the courtroom. She did not remember Skakel from school, though the two were about the same age.

"Growing up the prevailing thought had been that Thomas (Skakel) had been involved in some mishap that led to (Moxley's) death. Then the rumors started swirling that it was Michael," the woman said. "I haven't heard about any evidence. It just didn't affect me."

Howard Varnisky, an Okland, Calif.-based trial consultant who recently worked on the fatal San Francisco dog mauling case and the Timothy McVeigh trial, said the lack of knowledge of high-profile cases is consistent across the country.

"It never ceases to amaze, but many people don't watch the news. A lot of people consider it boring," Varinsky said. "If it's not front page and lead story it's just background noise."

Varinsky said the case's association with the Kennedy name would not even prompt a more widespread depth of knowledge.

"To many people today, the Kennedy name means nothing. People in their 20s and 30s know we had a president shot by that name and that's about it," Varinsky said. "Most people don't read news in depth."

He added that when he conducts questionnaires of potential jurors in certain districts, he asks how frequently they read or watch the news.

"Most say they watch the news on TV maybe once a week and pick up the sports section of the newspaper first, if they even read the newspaper at all," Varinsky said.

State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict said before the trial and again Friday that he didn't expect pre-trial publicity to become a big problem during jury selection.

"I think I was a voice in the wilderness," Benedict said. "I didn't think the publicity would have intense effects in this case and it has borne out this way."

Jury selection resumes Tuesday.

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