NEW HAVEN, Conn. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel got his first taste of freedom in more than 11 years Thursday when he was freed on bail while prosecutors appeal a ruling granting him a new trial in the 1975 slaying of neighbor Martha Moxley.
Skakel, the 53-year-old nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, touched his hand to his chest and looked back at his supporters in the courtroom, his brothers among them, as the judge set bail at $1.2 million.
He had been in prison more than 11 years on a sentence of 20 years to life but was freed shortly after the hearing in Stamford Superior Court.
“Michael was convicted of the murder of Martha Moxley, a murder he did not commit, and hopefully we are at the first step of righting that wrong and making sure an innocent man goes free,” defense attorney Hubert Santos said.
“Michael desperately wanted to be home for Thanksgiving and I told him that was unlikely because the state might start the appeals process, but the state elected not to appeal and, consequently, we were able to get a bail hearing almost immediately,” Santos added.
As conditions of the bail, the Stamford Superior Court judge ordered that Skakel live in Connecticut and wear a GPS tracking device. Santos said moments after the hearing ended that Skakel was “very happy” about the outcome.
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“This is the first step in correcting a terrible wrong. We look forward to Michael being vindicated and justice finally being served,” the Skakel family said in a statement. “We are grateful for the love and prayers of Michael’s many supporters who have sustained him through this ordeal.”
A judge ruled last month that Skakel’s trial attorney, Michael Sherman, failed to adequately represent Skakel in 2002 when he was convicted in Moxley’s bludgeoning with a golf club in wealthy Greenwich when they were both 15.
Judge Thomas Bishop said Sherman failed to locate a witness who backed up Skakel’s alibi that he was at his cousin’s house the night of the murder and failed to find a man who challenged a star witness’s claim that Skakel confessed.
Outside court, Moxley’s brother, John, and mother, Dorthy, said they disagreed with the bail decision, continue to believe Skakel killed Martha and are confident he will be convicted again at a new trial.
“I’m disappointed. I guess we knew that the day would come,” Dorthy Moxley said. “I don’t think he’s Jeffrey Dahmer or one of the Manson killers who would do anything like that, so it’s a kid that had problems. We don’t have anything to be afraid of now.”
“The whole thing didn’t have to be this way, but I take it as a lesson to parents: if your child does something, you face up to it. This could’ve all been over,” she told CBS 2’s Lou Young.
Added John Moxley, “We have nothing to say to Michael.”
“We’re obviously disappointed in Judge Bishop’s decision,” he said. “We stand behind the state and we know the state will appeal and we’re confident Judge Bishop’s decision will be overturned.”
Robert Kennedy Jr., who campaigned to overturn Skakel’s conviction, said this week that he felt “pure joy” at the prospect that his cousin was being released. Skakel has seen his son only a handful of times since he was sent to prison, he said.
“Everybody in my family knows that Michael is innocent,” Kennedy said Tuesday. “He was in jail for over a decade for a crime he didn’t commit. The only crime that he committed was having a bad lawyer.”
Santos had argued that Skakel should be released immediately, saying that the ruling makes him an innocent defendant awaiting trial and that he was not a flight risk. Santos also argued prosecutors were highly unlikely to win their appeal, a contention prosecutors dispute.
The case was considered a big challenge for prosecutors because of issues, including the age of the crime and the lack of forensic evidence. Skakel was convicted after a trial that focused on testimony that he confessed or made incriminating statements over the years.
Both Sherman and prosecutors defended his handling of the case.
Skakel’s older brother, Thomas, was an early suspect in the case because he was the last person seen with the victim, and Bishop said in his ruling that Michael Skakel’s defense should have focused more on Thomas.
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