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
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.