NEW HAVEN, Conn. (CBSNewYork/AP) – A Connecticut judge has granted a new trial for Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel, ruling his attorney failed to adequately represent him when he was convicted in 2002 of killing his neighbor in wealthy Greenwich in 1975.
The ruling by Judge Thomas Bishop marked a dramatic reversal after years of unsuccessful appeals by Skakel, the 52-year-old nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy. Skakel is serving 20 years to life.
Bridgeport State’s Attorney John Smriga said prosecutors will appeal.
Skakel’s current attorney, Hubert Santos, said he expects to file a motion for bail on Thursday. If a judge approves it, Skakel could then post bond and be released from prison.
“We’re very, very thrilled,” Santos said. “I always felt that Michael was innocent.”
Skakel argued his trial attorney, Michael Sherman, was negligent in defending him when he was convicted in the golf club bludgeoning of Martha Moxley when they were 15 years old in wealthy Greenwich, CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider reported.
Link: Read the judge’s ruling
Prosecutors contended Sherman’s efforts far exceeded standards and that the verdict was based on compelling evidence against Skakel.
John Moxley, the victim’s brother, said the ruling took him and his family by surprise and they hope the state wins an appeal.
“Having been in the courtroom during the trial, there were a lot of things that Mickey Sherman did very cleverly,” Moxley said about Skakel’s trial lawyer. “But the evidence was against him. And when the evidence is against you, there’s almost nothing you can do.
“I don’t care if it was Perry Mason,” Moxley said. “The state had the evidence. It was his own words and deeds that led to the conviction.”
On Wednesday night Martha Moxley’s mother Dorothy said that she was baffled by the decision.
“And, I do believe Michael Skakel killed my daughter. I don’t believe there’s any doubt in that. He convicted himself practically,” she said, “I have not had one bit of doubt. No, absolutely not. It took us 27 years to find and convict him. It wasn’t that we rushed to judgement on this.”
Skakel’s cousin Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has always maintained that Skakel was not present at the scene of the crime.
“My cousin Michael Skakel who is innocent of this crime and who was 11-miles away with five eyewitnesses. And, Mickey Sherman failed to turn up and that’s what was right in front of him and that’s why the judge said he was reversing this,” Kennedy said.
In his ruling, the judge wrote that defense in such a case requires attention to detail, an energetic investigation and a coherent plan of defense.
“Trial counsel’s failures in each of these areas of representation were significant and, ultimately, fatal to a constitutionally adequate defense,” Bishop wrote. “As a consequence of trial counsel’s failures as stated, the state procured a judgment of conviction that lacks reliability.”
Among other issues, the judge wrote that the defense could have focused more on Skakel’s brother, Thomas, who was an early suspect in the case because he was the last person seen with Moxley. Had Sherman done so, “there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different,” the judge wrote.
During a state trial in April on the appeal, Skakel took the stand and blasted Sherman’s handling of the case, portraying him as an overly confident lawyer having fun and basking in the limelight while making fundamental mistakes from poor jury picks to failing to track down key witnesses.
Santos argued that the prosecutors’ case rested entirely on two witnesses of dubious credibility who came forward with stories of confessions after 20 years and the announcement of a reward. Skakel had an alibi, he said.
Santos contends Sherman was “too enamored with the media attention to focus on the defense.” Sherman told criminal defense attorneys at a seminar in Las Vegas six months before the trial that one of his goals in representing Skakel was to have a “good time,” Santos said.
Sherman has said he did all he could to prevent Skakel’s conviction and denied he was distracted by media attention in the high-profile case.
Santos contends Sherman failed to obtain or present evidence against earlier suspects, failed to sufficiently challenge the state’s star witness and other testimony and made risky jury picks including a police officer.
Prosecutors countered that Sherman spent thousands of hours preparing the defense, challenged the state on large and small legal issues, consulted experts and was assisted by some of the state’s top lawyers. Sherman attacked the state’s evidence, presented an alibi and pointed the finger at an earlier suspect, prosecutors said.
“This strategy failed not because of any fault of Sherman’s, but because of the strength of the state’s case,” prosecutor Susann Gill wrote in court papers.
The state’s case included three confessions and nearly a dozen incriminating statements by Skakel over the years, Gill said. She also said there was strong evidence of motive.
“His drug-addled mental state, coupled with the infuriating knowledge that his hated brother Tommy had a sexual liaison with Martha, and the fact that Martha spurned his advances, triggered the rage which led him to beat her to death with a golf club,” Gill wrote.
Gill said what Sherman did with his personal time was irrelevant. She said the evidence cited by the defense was not significant and that Sherman had sound strategic reasons for his decisions.
Skakel, who maintains his innocence, was denied parole last year and was told he would not be eligible again to be considered for release for five years.
Bill Dunlap, a law professor at Quinnipiac University who has followed the case closely, told WCBS 880’s Wayne Cabot that he did not foresee Skakel being granted a new trial.
“I think most people following the case were surprised, because it’s relatively unusual that a defendant will win a trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel,” he said.
Dunlap added that convicting Skakel again will be a challenge for the prosecution.
“He doesn’t have to prove his innocence all over again; the prosecution has to prove his guilt all over again,” Dunlap said. “And that becomes harder for the prosecution. The first trial came 17 years, I think, after the killing. Now, this one is going to come another 12 or 13 years after that. And the farther a trial occurs after an event like a murder, the harder it is to find witnesses, witnesses may have died, their memories may have faded, they may have said contradictory things in the meantime.”
Skakel’s attorney told CBS 2’s Schneider that he plans to file a motion for bail on Thursday morning.
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