Discover more from Just the Facts with Gerald Posner
"Sherman's March" - a 2000 profile of attorney Mickey Sherman in TALK Magazine (by Gerald Posner)
Published May 2000
The lawyer for Kennedy relative Michael Skakel is preparing for what may be the biggest—and last—case of his career. And he’s loving every minute of it.
By Gerald Posner
"How do I look?" Mickey Sherman, boasting a new Dolce & Gabbana tuxedo, is striking a pose poolside at the swank Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. It is Oscar weekend, and the perpetually tan defense lawyer has just flown in from the East Coast. Officially, Sherman has come to interview some witnesses for his latest client, Kennedy relative Michael Skakel, who stands accused of having murdered a Greenwich, Connecticut neighbor back when both were teenagers. But it's party time in Hollywood, and when I invite Sherman along to some soirees, he jumps at the opportunity. "Here, here," he says, shoving his state-of-the-art digital video camera toward me. "Take pictures of me standing here. Make them good. I'm going to send copies to all my girlfriends."
Sherman, still boyish at 53, threads his way through the weekend like a tribal native. "Hey Mickey, when are you coming on again?" Charles Gibson, cohost of Good Morning America, shouts at him as they pass each other at the DreamWorks bash. Sherman's out till 3 a.m. most nights, but up in time to snag a prime table at the Bel-Air's power breakfast. On Oscar night, he unclasps the velvet security rope when no one is looking and slips onto the red carpet near Joan Rivers - where he remains, never far from camera range, during her fashion preshow.
Sherman knows that his representation of Skakel has made him the lawyer of the moment. He's handled high-profile clients before, notably Alex Kelly, a championship high school wrestler accused of rape who fled the country - only to be convicted upon his return (after Sherman had left the case). But the Skakel matter, a long-dormant investigation rekindled in part by the 1998 publication of the book Murder in Greenwich by Mark Fuhrman, the notorious O.J. Simpson detective, is of a different magnitude. "Alex Kelly was big," says Sherman. "But this is much bigger."
Sherman also knows the case will affect his reputation more than anything else he's touched. "Most people expect me to win. But I prefer to be the underdog," he tells me at a pre-Oscar lunch for writers and directors. "If I win, people will say, 'Well, it was an easy case.' But you never know what a jury is going to do, and if I lose they'll all say, 'Mickey's lost his touch."
He is not in the habit of losing. Nobody confuses Sherman with the second coming of Learned Hand. And you won't find him buried behind a box of documents on a complex white collar fraud case. "I have self-diagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder," he says, "so I wouldn't have the concentration." But his playboy image masks a skilled litigator with sharp tactical instincts and a natural rapport with the jury.
"His flair for humor and easy way belie a fairly intense and focused intellect and insight," says Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general, expressing a sentiment common among those who've squared off against Sherman in court. "Mickey thinks very carefully through all the potential steps and outcomes and how to reach the ones he wants. He doesn't do anything by chance."
I get a glimpse of Sherman's strategic thinking one night at Elaine's, the star-studded Manhattan eatery. Forensic pathologist Michael Baden brings bis girlfriend, lawyer Linda Kenney, to the table. After they leave Mickey leans over. "Baden has been hired by the Moxleys," he says, referring to the family of Martha Moxley, the young woman Skakel is accused of bludgeoning to death with a golf club on the night of October 30, 1975. "I hired Linda to help me on the defense."
Born in Los Angeles, Sherman moved with his family to a town near Greenwich - where Skakel lived- when he was five years old. But the two never met. Sherman was Jewish in a place that paid homage to status-conscious WASPs, he lived on the wrong side of the tracks. His father died when Mickey was 15, and his mother worked two jobs to put her children through school.
Skakel, meanwhile, enjoyed all the privileges that a link to the Kennedys (he is the nephew of Ethel Kennedy, Bobby's widow) conveys - the grand homes and wild weekend parties, the country clubs and ski trips. Today it is Sherman who flits regularly between Aspen, Palm Beach, and Las Vegas, while Skakel, now 39, is barricaded with his wife and children inside their Florida home, avoiding the press.
Sherman did a four-year stint in the state's attorneys office, where he was working at the time Moxley was murdered (he had nothing to do with the case). He then joined the defense bar and began building a practice based mainly on drunk-driving cases. He got his big break in 1991, when he successfully defended a Stamford apartment custodian charged with killing a tenant's son in broad daylight. Sherman posited what was at the time a novel defense: His client, a Vietnam veteran, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"That was the first time I ever saw Sherman," recalls Barry Scheck, the DNA guru and member of the O.J. dream team. "He was shrewd and had great instincts. You either have the necessary talents to be a really good trial attorney or you don't, and he had them."
The trial was one of the first covered by Court TV and received widespread coverage elsewhere. “That case made me,” Sherman recalls. “It gave me the exposure.” He parlayed those appearances into regular face time on Rivera Live, MSNBC, and the networks. "We actually tried him out for the Court TV pilot," recalls Steve Brill, founder of the cable network. "He wasn't right for that, but he was terrific for commentary. He took to the camera like a moth to light.”
When I was with Sherman, occasionally someone recognized him from television and wandered over. At a luncheon honoring Oscar nominated writers and directors the day before the academy awards, a Chicago woman, whose son is nominated for a production Oscar, was excited only to see Mickey. “I’ve seen you on Geraldo,” she gushes. He beams
It is precisely for his television work – which he has admitted he finds intoxicating - that he’s taken hits along the way. Many colleagues charge that Sherman is too enamored with television. Others charge he has used the Skakel case merely for self-promotion and access to a better group of celebrities.
“Hell no,” he says while laughing. “I’ve always been the same way I am now. This case hasn’t changed me. It’s just a bigger version of the things I’ve been doing for years.”
Sherman uses the exposure to his benefit. He joined a cluster of defense lawyers (Scheck and Johnnie Cochran prominent among them, he says) who regularly exchange information before going on shows - information that one of them might want to leak about his own case but can't, so he passes it off to the other guy. "We all do it that way," claims Sherman. "It's a valid second front, the public opinion front, on which to defend the negative spin put out by the other side."
His television work might have even landed him his biggest client, Skakel. “When Skakel had to choose a lawyer, there were probably only half a dozen of us in Connecticut that he could have gone to.” Courthouse rumors say Skakel only settled on Sherman after watching him discuss the case on TV. Sherman professes not to know how his client decided to hire him.
What is undeniable is that since signing on to represent Skakel, Sherman has had major media outlets lining up at his door. I first meet him at the popular Fifty Seven, Fifty Seven bar in Manhattan’s Four Seasons Hotel. When I arrive, producers from CBS’s 48 Hours are just leaving. “They wanted Michael,” he tells me. “But I told them that if they get anything it will be B-roll only.” Though every TV news magazine show imaginable has been after him for an exclusive, Sherman hasn’t produced Skakel for anyone—yet.
“You always have to stay on top of it,” Sherman admits. “There is a local bigwig in Connecticut about to be arrested on child molestation charges. I hate child molestation cases. But I can’t say no, because otherwise someone else will take it and get the press. It’s like being the gunslinger in town. You always have to protect your position.”
A few weeks earlier Sherman did just that when he heard a rumor that the Skakels were set to replace him with Roy Black, the lawyer who won a 1991 acquittal for William Kennedy Smith. One weekend, while visiting the Skakels in Palm Beach, Sherman's cell phone rang (a Motorola on which he has programmed the words 'Oh Shit'.) It was Black. 'So I placed my hand over the receiver," says Sherman, "and I looked directly at the Skakels. ‘Are you firing me?'" 'No, no, no,' " they assured me." Black was calling about a completely different case. But Sherman wasn't taking any chances.
Sherman is known for settling weak cases rather than dragging them out at trial. But he is adamant that there will be no plea bargain where Skakel is concerned. "The prosecutors have almost nothing. No hard evidence, No DNA, no witnesses at the scene, a botched crime scene. Mostly what they have are some statements from patients in a substance abuse clinic with Michael more than 20 years ago. And at least one of those supposed witnesses has recently said that he couldn't swear to anything. At least one recently sold their soul for 15 minutes of fame and some money from the tabloids. There are some real problems with their stories. And to make it worse for the prosecution, for years the police had several suspects. Besides Michael, there was his older brother Tom and [Ken] Littleton, a tutor who was with the Skakels. Now, all of a sudden, with no real new evidence, they charge Michael."
Not surprisingly, State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict disagrees. "Clearly, it being a 25-year-old case, we did not expect it to be handed to us on a silver platter. But through the 18-month grand jury investigation we were able to develop diverse enough evidence to call for prosecution, and we are more than eager to present this case to a Connecticut jury."
Sherman is also piqued that the media has focused on Skakel's Kennedy Connection - as if the accused man were using power and privilege to avoid justice. "Michael actually gets very little help from the Kennedys," Sherman insists. "In this case, the family connection will probably work against him."
Members of the Kennedy clan have reportedly not forgiven Skakel for being the prosecutors' key source in the investigation into his cousin, Michael Kennedy, who had an extramarital affair with his children's underage babysitter. And sources familiar with Skakel say he is upset with what he sees as the Kennedys' feeble support. Moreover, he is said to be fuming at the way he was treated at a rehabilitation clinic - the same clinic whose patients are the source of the accounts that he confessed to murder. There is a danger that his almost obsessive focus on these perceived wrongs could distract him from preparing his own defense.
"That's not true," says Sherman, waving his hand dismissively. "Michael knows what is at stake here and is fully involved in in every aspect of his defense."
The Skakel trial is still six to nine months away. In June there will be a hearing to determine whether Skakel will be tried as a juvenile, owing to the fact that he was 15 when the crime was committed, or as an adult. Sherman professes not to care about the venue, even though the penalties attending a juvenile conviction would be far less severe. He is anxious for the action to begin and says his defense will be straightforward. "I really, truly believe that Michael is innocent," says Sherman. "This is not a case with major surprises. There is no bloody glove here."
Not that he wouldn't relish a few unexpected turns. “Some lawyers are so over prepared they can't budge from their script and they fall apart. I enjoy it when it goes to places I didn’t plan."
Sherman has already been at work shaping his client's image. During Skakel's arrest and arraignment, Sherman urged Skakel to dress casually to counteract any resentment toward Kennedy status and prestige. 'I told him to walk in with his head up high, not downcast or covered like a Mafia don" he says. Sherman also counseled his client not to react if a reporter yelled out, "Why did you kill her?" It happened, "but since he was prepared," Sherman says, “Michael did not turn around and look at the reporter, which is what they want for tabloid photos."
I ask about Skakel’s comment at the arraignment, when he told Dorothy Moxley, Martha's mother, "I feel your pain, but you've got the wrong guy."
"If I had planned that, I would have made up a better line," Sherman says. “Whoever thought of doing it, it was pretty clever. If Michael didn't decide to do that, all the coverage out of the arraignment is a rehash of the charges against him. But that approach controlled the news."
Sherman later brags that whenever Mrs. Moxley sees him she kisses him and greets him warmly. “She likes me," he announces proudly. "She knows I have a job to do."
A week after our whirlwind Oscars jaunt, I visit Sherman at his law office, just prior to a hearing over a media motion to release a batch of documents – including arrest warrant affidavits - that will do little to aid his client's cause. Mickey is with five attorneys with whom he is consulting on the case, but he leaves no doubt about who is in charge. "This is not a team," he emphasizes. "There is no dream team on this case."
Sherman is dressed conservatively in a dark blue suit. But the seriousness stops there. Considered the class clown as a youngster, he is an incessant prankster with a joke for almost every situation. His private office is filled with joke props: a toy gun, a set of handcuffs, brass knuckles, a set of chattering teeth, and three bundles of fake dynamite. The walls are covered with everything from family photos to a gold record from the singer Michael Bolton, a close friend, to a photo of Sherman himself at a celebrity ski event. A television is surrounded by dozens of videocassettes of his recent shows.
"Here, watch this," he enthusiastically instructs as he inserts a tape. A few days earlier, on Court TV, he was asked if a son who killed both his parents should receive the death penalty. “I don't think he should have the death penalty," Sherman tells the host. "He obviously is not a threat to society. He's only a threat to his loved ones."
"Isn't that a great answer?" he asks, as the assembled in his office break out laughing. En route to the hearing, one of the lawyers states the obvious: "Mickey is having the time of his life."
Sherman checks the levity at the courthouse door. He raises no formal objection to the motion to release the arrest warrant affidavits, even though he earlier confided to me that they contain "embarrassing information that will keep the press going for at least a week." The hearing lasts 20 minutes, and the judge defers her decision.
We return to his office, where, after checking his e-mail and a stack of phone messages, he grabs his briefcase and offers me a ride home. On the way into Manhattan, Sherman uses his Jeep's speakerphone to return calls to reporters.
"What happened at the hearing?" is the typical question.
"My client copped to three years for manslaughter," Sherman deadpans.
"You can't lose your sense of humor because just because the things you're involved with are serious" he explains.
What will he do after Skakel? 'Actually, this could be my last big trial," he says - only half-jokin, it seems. He has two film projects in the works in Los Angeles and has been approached by lecture agencies and book publishers. "I'm ready to retire," he says. "I think in a couple of years you'll find me in the Bahamas, surrounded by 20 girls from Scores."