6:22 am - Thursday November 5, 2015

After 11 Years in Prison, Michael C. Skakel Goes Free on Bail

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After 11 Years in Prison, Michael C. Skakel Goes Free on Bail
After 11 Years in Prison, Michael C. Skakel Goes Free on Bail

STAMFORD — After spending more than a decade behind bars for the murder of a teenage girl in Greenwich, Conn., Michael C. Skakel, a cousin of the Kennedys, was ordered free from prison on Thursday to await a possible retrial.

Judge Gary White of Connecticut Superior Court in Stamford set bail at $1.2 million, ordering Mr. Skakel not to leave the state without permission and to wear a tracking device. The bail hearing came after another judge ruled last month that Mr. Skakel did not receive a fair trial because his first lawyer, Mickey Sherman, had not represented him effectively, depriving him of his constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel.

As Judge White made his announcement, friends and relatives of Mr. Skakel burst out in applause. Mr. Skakel, dressed in a suit and blue tie, tapped his chest as he walked out of the courtroom. Shortly after 2 p.m., he emerged from the basement of the courthouse and embraced supporters in enthusiastic bear hugs. He stood silently while his lawyer spoke to the throng of reporters outside before being whisked away in a waiting car.

Hubert J. Santos, Mr. Skakel’s current lawyer, declined to publicly reveal where Mr. Skakel would go once he was released. His brother John Skakel, who lives in Portland, Ore., provided bank checks to cover the bail.

It was the latest twist in a case that has fascinated the public and confounded investigators since 1975, when the battered body of Martha Moxley, 15, was found beneath a tree in her family’s backyard, pieces of a broken 6-iron golf club by her side.

Mr. Skakel, 53, was also 15 at the time of the murder, and the two were neighbors in a town that has long been a bastion of wealth. At different times, both Mr. Skakel and his brother Thomas were suspected of killing Ms. Moxley. But it was more than a quarter of a century before Mr. Skakel was tried and convicted. In 2002, he was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

The judge who ruled last month, Thomas A. Bishop of Superior Court in Rockville, wrote in a scathing 136-page decision that Mr. Sherman failed to show an attention to detail, lacked a coherent strategy and “was in a myriad of ways ineffective.” Those failures, he wrote, led to a “conviction that lacks reliability.”

After the ruling, Mr. Santos filed a motion for his client to be released on bail. In a later hearing, Judge Bishop decided that the question of whether to grant bail belonged with the criminal court in Stamford, where Mr. Skakel will be retried if the state decides to go forward with another prosecution.

From the outset, the case has attracted national news media attention, offering a potent mix of power, money and sex. It inspired a made-for-television movie, and became a staple for tabloids and an unending source of interest for true-crime writers, particularly Dominick Dunne.

Mr. Skakel is the nephew of Ethel Skakel Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, and the link to one of America’s most famous families fueled additional interest in the case.

His trial in 2002 lasted three weeks and revealed tawdry details about his life as a young man, including his drinking and his drug use. In his defense, Mr. Skakel acknowledged that on the night of the murder, he had climbed a tree and masturbated while trying to look into Ms. Moxley’s bedroom.

During the trial, the prosecution painted Mr. Skakel as an emotionally disturbed man who was consumed with guilt after the killing, prompting confessions and suicide attempts. In one particularly vivid example cited in court documents, a man employed by the family as a gardener described how Mr. Skakel once tried to jump off the Triborough Bridge after saying that “he had done something very bad, and that he needed to get out of the country, and that he had to kill himself.”

Mr. Skakel has always publicly maintained his innocence.

Throughout the trials and appeals, Mr. Skakel’s family has fought fiercely on his behalf, spending millions of dollars in various bids to win his freedom.

On Thursday, the prosecutors did not object to the setting of bail, just the amount. Mr. Santos suggested $500,000; John Smirga, the lawyer for the state, recommended a number closer to $2 million. Among the factors he wanted the judge to consider were the brutality of the murder, and Mr. Skakel’s resources, character and mental condition.

Mr. Santos dismissed the notion that his client could flee if he wanted to, given the notoriety of the case. “His is the most recognized face in America,” he said. “So he’s not going anywhere.”

At a news conference outside the courthouse on Thursday, Ms. Moxley’s mother, Dorthy, and brother, John, expressed disappointment at the decision but confidence that Judge Bishop’s decision to overturn the conviction would be reversed by the state’s appeal.

“We knew this day would come, so I wasn’t completely destroyed,” Mrs. Moxley said, adding “There’s a lesson to parents: If your child does something wrong, face up to it.”

Mr. Santos used the bail hearing to once again criticize the original prosecution of Mr. Skakel. He said the case had been weak and was based on hearsay.

“If the prosecution found a homeless guy at a train station” who claimed that Mr. Skakel confessed to the murder, Mr. Santos said, “he would be on the stand in a New York minute.”

Mr. Smirga defended the handling of the case but also noted the difficulties of prosecuting a crime so long after it took place.

“Each time the facts of this case are presented, they mutate,” he said. There was no single piece of evidence — like DNA, an eyewitness or a photograph — that could be used against the defendant, he said.

He compared the case to “a giant jigsaw puzzle,” but one without a picture to show what it is supposed to look like when all the pieces are put together. Mr. Smirga said he was confident the state solved the puzzle and vowed to continue in its appeal of Judge Bishop’s decision to vacate the conviction. “His lawyer was found ineffective,” Mr. Smirga said. “But he hasn’t been found innocent in any forum.”

Mr. Santos said Judge Bishop’s ruling revealed flaws in the state’s case against Mr. Skakel.

Mr. Santos and the Skakel family said they would continue to fight until Mr. Skakel was fully vindicated.

“This is the first step in correcting a terrible wrong,” the Skakel family said in a statement. “We look forward to Michael being vindicated and justice finally being served.”

Mr. Skakel was ordered to have no contact with the Moxley family.

He has a 14-year-old son, but, after more than a decade in prison, no home to return to. His lawyer declined to publicly reveal where Mr. Skakel would go once he was released.

While the joy of the Skakel family was evident in the courtroom, Mr. Moxley said he could not see how anyone could be happy about all that has happened.

He said that even if Judge Bishop’s ruling cast doubt on Mr. Skakel’s guilt, it left a cloud of suspicion over his brother Thomas, who was 17 when Ms. Moxley was killed. He was the last person known to have seen her alive.

“It is difficult to fathom how there could be any victory in this,” he said.

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