Prosecutors will appeal Wednesday’s decision granting habeas corpus relief to Kennedy-cousin Michael Skakel, who was convicted in 2002 for the murder of Martha Moxley.
The state also intends to object to any request to set bail or otherwise allow the release of Skakel from custody while the state’s appeal is pending.
Skakel was granted a new trial by a Connecticut judge who ruled his attorney failed to adequately represent him when he was convicted in 2002 of killing his neighbor in 1975.
The habeas court’s ruling does not rest on newly discovered evidence or any finding that Skakel is actually innocent of Moxley’s murder, John C. Smriga, State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Fairfield, stressed, but rather on a conclusion that Skakel’s attorney Michael Sherman provided inadequate representation at trial. Although the state is still in the process of reviewing the habeas court’s ruling, the state will challenge this conclusion as based on a misapplication of the law and a misconstruction of the facts, prosecutors said.
According to a press release put out by the state: “Attorney Michael Sherman devoted four years and thousands of hours to Skakel’s defense. His preparation included countless hours seeking out and interviewing witnesses, consulting with experts, researching legal issues, reviewing the enormous amount of discovery provided by the state, and using legal means to block the state’s access to incriminating evidence. He prosecuted two pre-trial appeals. Attorney Sherman used his judgment, developed over his more than three decades as a criminal defense attorney, to make strategic decisions,” the press release states.
“The state’s case relied on Michael Skakel’s uncontested connection to the murder weapon, strong evidence of motive, substantial evidence of consciousness of guilt, nearly a dozen incriminating admissions and three unequivocal confessions,” Smriga said.
The ruling by Judge Thomas Bishop marked a dramatic reversal after years of unsuccessful appeals by Skakel, the 53-year-old nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy. Skakel is serving 20 years to life.
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 in wealthy Greenwich.
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.”
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.