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There are no guilty clients, only lousy lawyers

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Walk the yard at any prison and poll the population. See how many really guilty people there are in the prison population. Most will tell you they were railroaded by some conspiracy among the prosecutor, the judge and most of all their lawyer. There are no guilty clients! Kennedy cousin, Michael Skakel is about to join that group.

Men and women convicted of serious crimes and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment have nothing but time on their hands. Time to reconsider the decisions they made in handling the case. Time to talk to the jailhouse lawyers that are everywhere in jails. Time to convince themselves that despite their actual guilt their shyster lawyer did them in.

That is the reality of being a criminal lawyer. When the jury rules against you and all appeals have failed then it’s time to blame the lawyers.

The Sixth Amendment requires that all accused of crime are entitled to the effective assistance of counsel throughout the adversary proceedings. This right attaches at the time of arrest and continues through the appeal stages. The United States Supreme Court established the gauge by which a lawyer’s effectiveness is to be measured to pass constitutional scrutiny.

In 1984 the Court handed down its decision in Strickland v. Washington. It isn’t important who Strickland was or why he complained. The Court recognized that an effective attorney is integral to the efficacy of the adversarial process. A two part standard was established. First, the petitioner must demonstrate that his counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. Second, there must be reasonable probability that if the lawyer performed adequately the result would have been different.

The Sixth Amendment does not guarantee the best of all possible legal representation. It requires that the lawyer be held to the minimum standard that would be objectively acceptable to criminal lawyers. It is a difficult burden to establish. Rightly so. There must be finality to any litigation. The victims require it and a defendant needs to accept a final determination.

Robert Kennedy, Jr. is to be applauded for the support he has given to his cousin. Too often family ignore and forget loved ones in prison. He has made some very strong statements about the competence and character of Skakel’s trial counsel, Mickey Sherman. That Sherman was a TV celebrity was well known long before he was retained by Skakel.

The case was investigated by a one man Grand Jury, a lengthy process, long before Skakel was charged. Following his arrest Skakel made bond and the case moved slowly toward a trial. If Sherman’s representation was so constitutionally deficient and if he, as Kennedy charges, was more preoccupied with celebrity than trial preparation, then where was Kennedy and the rest of the family during all that time.

The Connecticut Supreme Court fueled the flames with critical comments in the decision that affirmed the denial of Skakel’s recent petition for new trial. The majority opinion and the dissent are longer than most murder mystery novels. Did that Court intend to establish that Sherman’s representation offended the Strickland standard? Hardly. Those comments are what are referred to in legal jargon as dicta. They are not rulings by the Court that would establish the Sixth Amendment violation about to be raised. They are legal asides and observations by those justices that have some relevance to the issue they were deciding, but will never be looked upon as binding legal conclusions that will guarantee Skakel the new trial he desperately seeks.

Rich Meehan is a senior partner in the law firm of Meehan, Meehan & Gavin, LLP, Bridgeport, Conn. For more information on Rich or his firm go to www.meehanlaw.com or www.ctdentalmalpracticelawyer.com, or e-mail Rich at rtm@meehanlaw.com

Categories: General
Rich Meehan

7 Responses

  1. islandbelle says:

    There is only one problem with these blogs — no one vets the “facts” posted on them. Timster, you must stand corrected. Mickey Sherman’s former partner, who had nothing to do with the Skakel case, was absolutely NOT disbarred and the offense he pled guilty to had
    nothing to do with the practice of law.

  2. MarkSpizer says:

    great post as usual!

  3. Retiree says:

    As a retired law enforcement officer I have to agree with Mr. Meehan and not because Skakel was found guilty; it’s because of the logic he used to further his argument. At some point, as painful as it may be, defendants and their families have to face facts as they are, not as they would wish.

    I know Mickey Sherman and had my last contact with him about 10 or so years ago. I always liked him and found him to be a reasonable and yet passionate practioner. Yet, maybe all the years of high level exposure made more of an impact on him than he would have preferred had he had a crystal ball. I wonder how many of us would have come out differently if we faced the same life events. I sincerely hope he comes out of his current troubles with his name and life intact.

    I also understand the comments for Our voice shrinks. It is a difficult choice lawyers make when they have what they know to be a guilty client and yet they do their best to defend them. I’m not so sure I could bring myself to do it, but my experience is that most lawyers are able to insulate their personal feelings when doing their job. That is something I also tried to do in my career when I investigated crimes that led to arrests of those very same defendants.

    Still and all, it’s a pleasure to read reasonable comments from some. Timster take note.

  4. Rich Meehan says:

    While I appreciate that you have chosen another path in the law; nonetheless you do a disservice to dedicated members of our profession with an observation that as criminal lawyers we “. . .push the legal boundaries beyond reason to harm society . . .” You must have been absent when they taught the Constitution.

  5. Our voice shrinks says:

    When I attended law school in the 70′s, my criminal law professor prepared the class in advance of a tour of the state penitentiary. He stated plainly “You will find no guilty men there!” We were shocked, being young and foolish law students out to right the injustices of an unjust society. The professor’s explanation perfectly mirrored Attorney Meehan’s above. He went further to illustrate the seemingly senseless cases that arose of each year of attorneys who became so enraptured with their clients that they participated in attempted (and sometimes successful) escape attempts.

    Yet time proved him true. After handling (and successfully defending) several pro-bono criminal cases in clinical law, I came to a personal decision that I could not reconcile the ethics of defending clients I knew to be guilty of a crime with my responsibilities as an attorney to the court and my responsibilities to society.

    Yes, if I were ever charged with a crime, I would want the best criminal attorney to defend me. But I fully admit, I could not be a criminal defense attorney, I would be unable to push the legal boundaries beyond reason to harm society in defense of one I knew to be guilty.

  6. Timster says:

    Mickey Sherman never met a microphone or TV camera he didn’t love!
    Mickey thought he was going to waltz Michael in the front door of the court house and have a media circus post aquittal party on the court house steps afterwards, which didn’t happen, as we all know.
    Perhaps if the Mr. Skakel had retained Hugh keefe, William Dow, Gene Riccio and few other talented lawyers…….he just might have “gotten off” shall we say?
    Mr. Sherman’s partner went to prison and was disbarred.
    The IRS and CT bar have had issues with Mr. Sherman, which may or may not be resolved at this point.
    I am not buying the Kennedy/Skakel clan spin on this tragedy, that said, Mr. Sherman put his own personal interests before those of his client and the professional code of conduct he swore to uphold.
    Mickey Sherman is not innocent in this case!
    Mr. Skakel has to live with the juries judgement and his actions for all eternity.

  7. Dux239 says:

    Let’s face it; if Skakel had been acquitted on these charges of murdering Martha Moxley, there would be nothing but praise for his lawyer Mickey Sherman. Skakel is as guilty as the day is long. He deserves to spend the rest of his miserable life in jail – which is more than Martha Moxley got when he knocked her off back when shew was just 16 years old! When will the Kennedy’s learn to behave ethically? Blood may be thicker than water but there is something much thicker and more sustainable than a relative, and that is INTEGRITY and the LAW – concepts that RFK Jr. seems to have overlooked in his academic pursuit of the American “dream”. Face it, the Kennedy legacy is past tense.

    As for Mr. Skakel; hang your head in shame and accept your punishment as a man for once in your life. After-all, you murdered a beautiful young woman you coward!!!!