Skakel Decision Has Legal Community Talking

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Michael Skakel
Michael Skakel

When Connecticut attorney Mickey Sherman was one of the nation's most high-profile defense attorneys a decade or so ago, he often went on CNN and other networks to comment on legal issues and cases.

So it seemed appropriate last week that after a judge soundly criticized Sherman's own legal work and granted a new trial for a former client, convicted killer Michael Skakel, that there was no shortage of lawyers ready to comment on the case.

Some defense attorneys defended Sherman. Others commented on the decision's impact on future habeas corpus proceedings. Skakel's own lawyer asked for his client to be freed pending a retrial. Prosecutors said they would, in fact, try Skakel again for the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley, who was bludgeoned with a golf club, a crime committed when Skakel and the victim were both 15 years old and neighbors in upscale Greenwich.

Stephan Seeger, a Stamford lawyer who helped Sherman represent Skakel in 2002, echoed the sentiments of many in the legal field who said it is extremely rare for a judge to grant a new trial after an inmate files a habeas petition claiming ineffective assistance of counsel.

"People don't realize just how rare a successful petition is," Seeger said. "Percentage-wise, we're talking digits [to the right of] a decimal point and a zero."

Seeger continued: "The court has spoken on the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel, and other irregularities in the trial, and the bottom line is that Michael [Skakel] will be given an opportunity to come home to his family forever. What we need to respect is that, by definition, he is a wrongfully convicted man. In facing a future jury, he is effectively reclothed in the presumption of innocence."

Stamford defense lawyer James Diamond sat through much of the Skakel trial, acting as a commentator for a Fairfield County TV station. Last week, Diamond said he would not be surprised if there is a cynical response to this decision from other criminal defendants. Many inmates filing habeas petitions do so on their own or with the help of public defenders.

Skakel, in contrast, was represented by Hubert Santos, one of the most well-respected attorneys in the state. Diamond said the decision could reinforce the notion that well-heeled defendants with high-priced lawyers get better results.

"My clients always complain about that and bring up O.J. Simpson as the poster child for their belief that if you have enough money you will prevail," said Diamond, a former prosecutor.

Diamond, who is on the executive committee of the Connecticut Bar Association's criminal law section, said there are already so many habeas claims by inmates that he cannot see this decision causing even more claims to be brought. However, he said, the defendants who do bring them "will be more encouraged" about their chances.

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