Skakel's trial has its share of quirks
By Lindsey Faber - Greenwich Time
NORWALK -- The days begin with a jumpstart.
Cameramen leap from their beach chairs behind the Norwalk courthouse as the cars pull in.
"Heads up! Here they come!" at least one camerman shouts, alerting the others.
Michael Skakel arrives, with three defense lawyers, a personal bodyguard, a private investigator, three siblings, an aunt, a cousin and several friends. Two defense team cars, a navy Jeep Wrangler and a black Infiniti SUV, swing behind the courthouse. The Skakel entourage proceeds into the courtroom, filling up the first two rows of the right section.
Dorthy Moxley arrives with her son, John, and several friends. They pull around back and wave from behind the car window, in either Moxley's silver Mercedes or a navy Chevrolet Tahoe.
The Moxley crew settles in the center section of the courtroom, to the leftmost side, filling up the first three rows.
Dozens of reporters file in among the two key families.
Everyone takes his or her place.
It's another day at the Michael Skakel murder trial, whose key players have in three weeks of testimony developed routines as quirky and predictable as the ritual powdering of Dominick Dunne's face before "Larry King Live."
Skakel, 41, is on trial for the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley, his teenaged neighbor in Belle Haven. Moxley's body was found on Halloween of that year, beaten to death with a golf club so hard that the club snapped into several pieces. The golf club was linked to the Skakel family.
When the day begins, Skakel's lawyer Michael Sherman and State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict take different approaches to questioning witnesses, Benedict considered more of a straight-shooter and Sherman more of a schmoozer.
Sherman's questions are often phrased as statements.
Helen Ix Fitzpatrick, a Belle Haven neighbor, testified as a state witness about whether Skakel went to his cousin's home in backcountry Greenwich at the time the killing is believed to have occurred.
Fitzpatrick testified several times she couldn't be sure if Michael Skakel went with his brothers and cousin that night but it was more probable than not.
When it was Sherman's turn to question her, he tried to catch her.
"OK, Rushton was driving, Jimmy was in the car, John was in the car, Michael was in the car," Sherman said quickly to Fitzpatrick, his statement meant as a question.
But Ix stuck by her original testimony.
"I don't know that for sure," she said.
During Benedict's questions, Sherman taps his foot impatiently. During Sherman's questions, Benedict sits slumped in his chair. Both pop out of their seats with energetic objections, Benedict sometimes sounding testy about them and Sherman often laughing them off.
In keeping with their characters, Benedict usually avoids the press. Sherman clings to it like plastic wrap.
Skakel, meanwhile, sits sandwiched between his defense team, often looking agitated as he writes notes back and forth to his lawyers. Prosecutors, who have a close look at him in the front of the court, say he has been mouthing obscenities to several witnesses and cannot control himself in the courtroom. Sherman has called the allegations "baloney."
During testimony about the physical beatings Skakel took while at the Elan School, where some witnesses say he made tearful confessions to the murder, Skakel hangs his head low and rarely looks up.
Throughout, it remains difficult to gauge what the jury makes of the case. Most maintain poker faces, though some snicker with courtroom observers during eccentric bits of testimony.
Lawyers keep going back to the now-famous barking dogs, said to have barked incessantly at the Moxley property shortly before 10 p.m. on Oct. 30, 1975, the night of Moxley's murder. Sherman would like the jury to believe Skakel was out of the neighborhood at that hour.
The particular dog that has gained notoriety from the trial is an old Australian shepherd dog named Zock, who lived next to the Skakels in the Ix household.
Fitzpatrick, a friend of Moxley's and Skakel's, said her dog was barking violently that night.
"He always barked but not like that," she said. "That night I went out and I called him and called him and he just wouldn't come and he always came. I'll never forget it."
The dog has come up repeatedly. It came up when Ix's mother, Mildred Ix, was called to testify.
"Did the dog's attitude change after the murder?" Sherman asked Mildred Ix.
"No," she answered.
"The dog had a problem with Michael before the murder and after the murder?"
"He just didn't like Michael," she said.
Sherman originally objected to the psychoanalysis of the dog's views toward Skakel, though.
"How do I cross-examine a dog that's been dead for 20 years?" he asked Superior Court Judge John Kavanewsky Jr.
At another point in the trial, the former Skakel family driver testified that he wasn't sure when he quit that job.
Suddenly, he remembered.
"It was the year that Elvis died," Larry Zicarelli said.
"Do you recall when Elvis died?" Benedict asked.
"It was August, August of '77," Zicarelli said.
As if it weren't clear enough, Benedict followed up one last time: "And when you say Elvis, who do you mean?"
Finally, another moment of contention occurred when Sherman mentioned during Zicarelli's testimony that Skakel was not upset on a car trip to New York because he had murdered Moxley.
Instead, Sherman said his client was feeling ashamed because he had slept in his dead mother's dress the night before.
Apparently his client felt the need to correct him during a court break.
Sherman later told reporters that Skakel had slept with the dress, not in it.
Lunch, meanwhile, is party territory. With few eating options near the Norwalk courthouse, each camp stakes out its restaurant. Skakel usually eats at the nearby Ash Creek Saloon. The Moxleys often eat at Ambrosia, a Mediterranean Cafe. Some reporters frequent that restaurant too, many setting up their laptops at the bar.
Most reporters tend to prefer a small luncheonette called Foodworks, a short walk from the courthouse. The jury eats there too, meaning that reporters cannot discuss the case over lunch since the jury is not supposed to read or hear any media accounts.
Carol Kasmarski, the owner of Foodworks, appreciates the new business. She is loyal to the jurors and always knows what the regulars like to order.
"Let me get my jurors first, sweetheart," she told a teenager who ordered a chicken parmesan wedge last week in front of the 10 or so jurors waiting on line.
"Just don't sit at that big table because I have the Skakel murder trial jurors eating there everyday," she told another group.
CNN plays, muted, on a small TV perched on a wall in the luncheonette. It remains on mute when the jurors come in so they won't hear any coverage of the trial.
But it's really the morning and afternoon breaks when the true color of the Skakel trial comes out.
Inevitably, before the court marshal can even say, "All rise please," someone will rush over to ask Vanity Fair writer Dunne for his autograph. Dunne, usually found hobnobbing with the Moxleys, always obliges.
Others head to the hallway to peer out of the courtyard window at the family of young ducks that recently hatched. The duck family apparently returns to Norwalk each season. Skakel himself commented last week on how quickly the ducks have grown.
"That's amazing," he told his bodyguard.
The three prosecutors in the case spend the break time in their office in the courthouse. Sherman, meanwhile, lingers around in the hallway, with one hand in his suit pocket and the other hand glued to his silver Motorola cell phone.
The court marshals patrol and remind people to stay off their cell phones in the hallways and take their calls outside. They never seem to say that to Sherman.
The Moxley crew usually lingers in the courtroom or out in the hallway. Dorthy Moxley's friends insulate her, but she often talks to reporters and tells them, "You're doing such a good job!"
The Skakel crew heads outside to the front of the courthouse, some to smoke a cigarette and others to make cell phone calls. Skakel himself is always "protected" by his bodyguard, brothers and family friends, with whom he chit-chats amicably.
Some reporters follow Skakel outside. Most don't bother, since he is always sheltered and almost never comments on his case.
Nevertheless, Skakel is the first to head back into the courtroom during a morning break. He wants to be there when Superior Court Judge John Kavanewsky Jr. pounds twice on the door behind the bench, indicating he is ready to enter the room and resume the trial.
When the jury panel enters at any time, whether in the early morning or after breaks, Skakel is always the first on the defense and prosecution sides to rise, out of respect for the team that will determine his fate.