Trial starts in NY socialite feud


June 18, 2010 Updated Mar 30, 2009 at 3:11 PM EDT

The scion of one of New York's leading families goes on trial Monday, accused of cheating his dying mother, legendary philanthropist Brooke Astor, out of millions of dollars.

The trial of Anthony Marshall, who allegedly defrauded his mother into changing her will while she was incapacitated by Alzheimer's, marks the latest humiliation for the city's moneyed elite.

A former Marine Corps officer and US ambassador, 84-year-old Marshall is charged with fraud and theft together with his former lawyer, Francis Morrissey, 66.

Jury selection starts Monday and the trial is expected to be lengthy, enthralling a public angered by the antics of the powerful and wealthy at a time of deepening recession.

Astor, who died at the grand age of 105 in 2007, was famed for giving away some 200 million dollars to New York institutions, including the Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Renowned for her old-school manners, wit and elegance, she was for decades a US equivalent of royalty.

In an 18-count indictment, Marshall and Morrissey are accused of having "exploited Brooke Astor's diminished mental capacity... in order to unjustly enrich themselves."

They allegedly tricked Astor into changing her will to leave Marshall "her residuary estate outright, thereby changing her long-established plan that her residuary estate would ultimately go to charity."

Adding to the extraordinary bitterness of the dispute, one of Marshall's chief accusers is his own son, Phillip Marshall, who claims his father also forced the family matriarch to live in squalor.

In addition, Morrissey, who was suspended from practicing law in the 1990s for misconduct, is charged with forging Astor's will.

Both men say they are innocent. Marshall's lawyers have argued that as the only son of Astor he was always treated to largesse and that for years he faithfully and fairly managed her affairs.

The trial is expected to attract the full glare of New York's media and follows the recent downfall of other high-profile figures, ranging from Wall Street conman Bernard Madoff to Laurence Salander, an exclusive art dealer arrested last week in an 88 million dollar scam.

"Rich people behaving badly is riveting again," said Meryl Gordon, author of a 2008 book on the saga, "Mrs Astor Regrets."

"In a way it's a great distraction to the economy falling apart and it's a scandal people can understand. They don't know what happened to their 401K (retirement savings), but this they can watch and understand," Gordon told AFP.

Marshall has no criminal record, but Morrissey has had previous run-ins with the law and is accused by prosecutors of having swindled a number of other elderly and wealthy clients, as well as improperly billing an oil company.

At a pre-trial hearing last week, prosecutor Elizabeth Loewy recalled that when Morrissey was reinstated as a lawyer in 1998 he issued a bizarre apology, saying that "something evil was inside me."

"How fragile human beings are. How fragile a man can be," he said then. "I have to always watch these bad things inside me."

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