Connecticut Town Braces for Media Storm Over Skakel Trial
By Kellie A. Wagner
The Connecticut Law Tribune - Law.com

As one media executive pointed out in Norwalk, Conn., last week, municipalities quickly learned after the O.J. Simpson trial how to turn chaos into profit when high-profile court cases come to town.

As the trial of Michael Skakel begins with jury selection April 2 in Norwalk, members of various municipal entities, including Mayor Alex Knopp and representatives from the Coastal Fairfield County Convention & Visitors Bureau, joined state Judicial Branch workers in holding an organizational meeting for the press.

With the trial recently transferred to Norwalk from Stamford, Conn., city and state officials say they want to minimize the disruption and impact in and around the tiny Norwalk courthouse, while quietly maximizing on an increase in traffic for a trial that officials predict will last about three months.

"As mayor of Norwalk, I think Stamford will be a great place for this trial," Knopp said, joking with the media crowd packed into courtroom A of the Norwalk Courthouse on March 5.

Knopp later touted the many amenities available in the city, but told the press those statements were "off the record."

As Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, communications manager for the Judicial Branch, talked logistics with the press, repeatedly stressing that space will be tight in trying to accommodate the 68 media representatives signed up to cover the trial, members of the Convention & Visitors Bureau handed out brochures.

"This could almost be a trade show," Hartford Courant reporter Lynne Tuohy joked, eyeing representatives from SNET, the city's Department of Public Works, and a media representative from the state's Department of Economic & Community Development.

Even Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling admitted that the city was gearing up for a colossal impact from not only the media, but from members of the general public as well.

"We have prepared for two presidential visits, the biggest oyster festival and the largest [boat] show on the East Coast, but nothing like this," Rilling said.

Walking into the Norwalk Courthouse on the day of the conference for other business, Stamford defense attorney Stephan Seeger, part of the Skakel defense team, noted how even new carpets and other renovations were being made in the court because of the trial.

"They are going to hate this guy [Skakel] even more than they do now," Seeger said.

Shortly before the meeting began, Guy Ortoleua, executive director of the Connecticut Film, Video and Media office for the Department of Economic & Community Development, drew out his game plan for positioning the media on a chalkboard.

But once the meeting began, Ortoleua's presentation quickly gave way to a more demanding crowd, who queried Stearley-Hebert on specifics such as where they -- and Skakel -- would enter the court.

"I stress this is a work in progress," Stearley-Hebert said. "Our goal is to have everything in place by April 2. We do not have the best facility, quite frankly, and there are significant space issues, inside and outside of the [court.] They [Norwalk] didn't choose this, we chose this [location.]"

According to Melissa Farley, director of the Judicial Branch's external affairs division, the recent transfer of the case from Stamford was due to a lack of jury space in the Hoyt Street courthouse.

However, Superior Court Judge John Kavanewsky Jr., who is presiding over the Skakel trial, was transferred to the Norwalk district in January. At the time, judicial officials denied that the case was being transferred.

Stearley-Hebert said it was "highly unlikely" that in the event the new $90 million courthouse being built in Stamford is complete before the trial begins May 7 that the case would go back to Stamford.

Farley said that Courtroom C in the Norwalk courthouse, where the trial will be held, provides 173 seats and room for a jury.



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