Kennedy family member Michael Skakel has long sought a new trial in the killing of Martha Moxley, a neighbor bludgeoned to death by a golf club in 1975. In a surprise ruling, Judge Thomas Bishop found that Skakel was denied a fair trial due to ineffective counsel. Bishop’s opinion slams Skakel’s original legal counsel, Michael Sherman, as failing basic expectations of a lawyer and suggests, as the family has argued, that he was obsessed or blinded by the media attention in the case.
Skakel is the 52-year-old nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy and is serving 20 years to life after his 2002 conviction. He was a troubled boy with an alcohol problem before the murder. Prosecutors insisted that he was jealous with the attention shown by Moxley for his brother. The ruling comes near the anniversary of her death. On the evening of October 30, 1975, Martha Moxley went to a Halloween party where she was seen kissing Thomas Skakel, Michael’s brother. Her body was later found underneath a tree in her family’s backyard with her trousers and underwear were pulled down. She had been both beaten and stabbed with a broken six-iron golf club were found near the body. It was not until 2000 however that he was indicted.
This is a huge victory for his current attorney, Hubert Santos, because ineffective counsel claims are notoriously difficult to make under current standards.
Thomas found that Sherman failed to take rudimentary steps in the investigation of alternative culprits and key witnesses: “Trial counsel’s failures in each of these areas of representation were significant and, ultimately, fatal to a constitutionally adequate defense. As a consequence of trial counsel’s failures as stated, the state procured a judgment of conviction that lacks reliability.”
In April, Skakel blasted Sherman in testimony, describing failures of Sherman in developing a defense. Santos added that Sherman was “too enamored with the media attention to focus on the defense” and described a statement made by Sherman 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 told the court that
“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. 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.”
Sherman was often called upon as a television legal commentator in high-profile cases. He is married to Fox News legal analyst and author Lis Wiehl. Wiehl indicated that they may have separated. Sherman has previously been charged with ethics violations. In May 2007, Sherman admitted that he violated two rules of professional conduct and was reprimanded by the Statewide Grievance Committee. Worse yet, on June 30, 2010, Sherman pled guilty two counts of willfully failing to pay federal income taxes for tax years 2001 and 2002, in the amount of $390,000 in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. He went to jail in 2011.
The 136-page decision details angles and leads that were not pursued by Sherman, even though the prosecutors insisted that it was the evidence, not the lawyer, that led to conviction. Bishop concluded that
“As a consequence of trial counsel’s failures as stated, the state procured a judgment of conviction that lacks reliability. Though defense counsel’s errors of judgment and execution are not the fault of the state, a defendant’s constitutional right to adequate representation cannot be overshadowed by the inconvenience and financial and emotional cost of a new trial. To conclude otherwise would be to elevate expediency over the constitutional rights we cherish.”