NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Prosecutors and Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel’s attorney have filed court papers in his 2002 murder conviction appeal in which they disagree about the strength of the government’s case and the effectiveness of his trial attorney.
Skakel argues trial attorney Michael Sherman failed to competently defend him when he was convicted in the golf club bludgeoning of his Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley in 1975, when they were 15. Skakel, who is serving 20 years to life, is the 52-year-old nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy.
Following an appeals trial in April, prosecutors filed court papers last week and Skakel’s attorney filed them last month. A judge is expected to rule by December on whether Skakel deserves a new trial.
Prosecutors argue Sherman’s efforts far exceeded standards, saying he spent thousands of hours preparing the defense, challenged the state on large and small legal issues, consulted experts and was assisted by some of the state’s top lawyers. Sherman attacked the state’s evidence, presented an alibi and pointed the finger at an earlier suspect, prosecutors said.
“This strategy failed not because of any fault of Sherman’s, but because of the strength of the state’s case,” prosecutor Susann Gill wrote. “If the evidence on which the jury based its verdict is not considered compelling, then many verdicts upheld in this state must truly be on shaky ground.”
The state’s case included three confessions and nearly a dozen incriminating statements by Skakel over the years, Gill said. She also said there was strong evidence of motive.
“His drug-addled mental state, coupled with the infuriating knowledge that his hated brother Tommy had a sexual liaison with Martha, and the fact that Martha spurned his advances, triggered the rage which led him to beat her to death with a golf club,” Gill wrote.
Skakel’s attorney, Hubert Santos, countered that the prosecutors’ case rested entirely on two witnesses of dubious credibility who came forward with stories of confessions after 20 years and the announcement of a reward. Skakel had an alibi, he said.
Santos contends Sherman was “too enamored with the media attention to focus on the defense.” Sherman told criminal defense attorneys at a seminar in Las Vegas six months before the trial that one of his goals in representing Skakel was to have a “good time,” Santos said.
“Defending a murder charge is not about enjoying oneself, it is about zealously advocating for the client and providing him with the assistance guaranteed by our constitution,” Santos wrote. “It is not about getting invited to A-list parties in New York City, or launch parties for the trendy new television show, or going to the Academy Awards and all the ‘cool parties’ afterwards.”
Santos contends Sherman failed to obtain or present evidence against earlier suspects, failed to sufficiently challenge the state’s star witness and other testimony and made risky jury picks including a police officer.
Gill said what Sherman did with his personal time was irrelevant. She said the evidence cited by the defense was not significant and that Sherman had sound strategic reasons for his decisions.
Sherman says he did all he could to prevent Skakel’s conviction and denies he was distracted by media attention in the high-profile case.