HARTFORD, Conn. — In a long and biting decision, a state judge on Wednesday set aside Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel’s murder conviction and ordered his retrial in the 1975 death of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley because of the glaring ineffectiveness of Skakel’s original trial lawyer.
Judge Thomas Bishop devoted long stretches of his 135-page decision, dated Wednesday, to a harsh critique of Skakel’s original trial lawyer, Michael “Mickey” Sherman. Skakel, 52, is about halfway through a 20-years-to-life prison sentence for Moxley’s murder.
Sherman “was in a myriad of ways ineffective,” Bishop wrote. “The defense of a serious felony prosecution requires attention to detail, an energetic investigation and a coherent plan of defense capably executed. Trial counsel’s failures in each of these areas of representation were significant and, ultimately, fatal to a constitutionally adequate defense.”
As a consequence, Bishop wrote, the conviction “lacks reliability.”
He wrote that although Sherman’s performance and errors of judgment weren’t the fault of prosecutors, “a defendant’s constitutional right to adequate representation cannot be overshadowed by the inconvenience and financial and emotional cost of a new trial. To conclude otherwise would be to elevate expediency over the constitutional rights we cherish.”
Wednesday’s milestone ruling followed a string of unsuccessful appeals by Skakel, who protested his innocence in dramatic testimony before the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles last year.
He told the board exactly a year ago Thursday that he believed that saying he had murdered Moxley would give him “the best chance” of getting paroled.
“But 10 years later, I can’t do that,” Skakel said during the emotional hearing. “It just isn’t me.”
Skakel was convicted in 2002 of beating Moxley to death with a golf club when the two teenagers, both 15 at the time, were neighbors in the posh Belle Haven neighborhood in Greenwich. Skakel is a nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy.
Although Skakel’s older brother, Thomas, and Kenneth Littleton, a tutor of the Skakel children, came under police suspicion, the case remained unsolved for nearly a quarter-century until 2000 when Michael Skakel, 39 at the time, was charged with the murder.
Because of his ties to the Kennedys, the case received widespread publicity and spawned books and a made-for-TV movie.
Since his conviction, Skakel has been unsuccessful in his many attempts to get either his conviction overturned or his prison sentence reduced.
One of his lawyers, Hubert J. Santos, said Wednesday that Skakel was now looking forward to the day when he would finally be vindicated.
“It’s been 11 years in the making,” Santos said, adding that his former partner, Hope Seeley, who is now a Superior Court judge, deserved much of the credit for Wednesday’s win.
“She worked on the case up until one hour before she was sworn in,” Santos said.
Santos said he would apply for Skakel’s release on bail as soon as Thursday. Prosecutors plan to appeal the ruling, Bridgeport State’s Attorney John C. Smriga told the Associated Press.
Bishop’s ruling followed a last-ditch habeas corpus hearing in Superior Court in Rockville in April during which Santos and another lawyer, Jessica M. Santos, based their argument for a new trial on grounds that Sherman’s original defense was ineffective.
Skakel’s new lawyers grilled Sherman on the witness stand, portraying him as a money-hungry lawyer with financial woes who spent time in the media spotlight and at “A-list” parties instead of on Skakel’s defense strategy.
Sherman countered Skakel’s allegations, saying that he never skimped on spending money and time on Skakel’s defense and that he had appeared on TV as a legal analyst “way before” he took on the Skakel case in the late 1990s.
On Wednesday, Sherman said he was “not surprised” by the judge’s ruling.
“I’ve never thought that Michael Skakel was guilty, and I’m happy he’s getting a new trial,” Sherman said. “He deserves it; he deserves to be free.”
Skakel’s new lawyers also hammered Sherman for not presenting important evidence they said could have led to Skakel’s acquittal. They brought new witnesses into the April hearing who never testified in the 2002 trial.
Bishop appears to have been swayed by one of those witnesses, Dennis Ossorio, a former psychologist from Rye Brook, N.Y., whose testimony bolstered Skakel’s long-held alibi — that he was with his brothers at a cousin’s home watching a Monty Python show at the time of Moxley’s murder.
Ossorio said he saw Skakel at the home watching the show that night because he was visiting his girlfriend at the time, Georgeann Skakel Dowdle, a cousin of Michael Skakel’s. Skakel argued in his petition that Ossorio’s testimony at trial would have helped him because the prosecution claimed that the only people who could support Skakel’s alibi were family members.
Ossorio said that he was never questioned by police and never talked to Sherman.
In his ruling, Bishop noted that Ossorio “testified credibly,” and that his testimony supported Skakel’s “claim that during the likely time of the murder, he was away from Belle Haven, as he indicated.”
If Sherman had put Ossorio on the witness stand, Bishop wrote, “there is a reasonable probability” that “the outcome of the trial would have been different.”
Bishop also nodded to testimony that Skakel’s lawyers presented in April that questioned why Sherman did not work harder at trial to connect Skakel’s brother, Thomas, to the crime.
Thomas Skakel was one of the last people to see Moxley alive the night of Oct. 30, 1975, and immediately came under suspicion. Then 17, he was questioned by police for hours after her body was found.
At the time of the killing, the Skakel brothers were considered to be intense rivals in almost everything they did, including courting Moxley’s affection. Greenwich police applied for a warrant for Thomas Skakel’s arrest on a murder charge in May 1976. The warrant was rejected by prosecutors as being too skimpy on evidence, and never reached a judge’s desk.
When questioned about Thomas Skakel in April, Sherman testified that his defense strategy was to point the finger at Littleton, the children’s tutor, not at Skakel’s brother.
In Wednesday’s ruling, Bishop said “Sherman’s failure to point an accusatory finger at T. Skakel was and is inexplicable. Given the evidence of T. Skakel’s culpability available to Attorney Sherman before trial, there was no reasonable basis for his failure to shine the light of culpability on T. Skakel.”
Bishop said Sherman did not have to convince the jury that Thomas Skakel killed Moxley, rather, “he needed only to argue that the direct and circumstantial evidence regarding T. Skakel’s potential culpability should, at least, create a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury” as to Michael Skakel’s guilt.
Dorthy Moxley, 81, who for years sought her daughter’s killer and consistently attended countless court hearings, was undaunted Wednesday by the prospect of another day in court.
“It just means we will win again,” an upbeat Moxley said during a telephone interview from her New Jersey home. “I feel so confident that Michael Skakel is the guilty person. I don’t have any doubt about that.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services