A high-profile cold case involving on of America’s premier political families has taken a new turn.  A judge ordered a new trial for Michael Skakel, the nephew of Robert F. Kennedy.  Skakel, who has spent more than a decade behind bars, is accused of killing his 15-year-old neighbor, Martha Moxley (below right) with a golf club in 1975.  27 years after the murder, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.  Since then, Skakel has fought to overturn his conviction.

A Connecticut judge gave Skakel, who is now 53, a new day in court.  The judge ruled that Skakel’s defense attorney was inefficient.  State’s Attorney John Smriga said prosecutors plan to appeal.  But if the appeal is unsuccessful, prosecutors will have to decide whether to retry Skakel or not.  Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has long maintained his cousin’s innocence, described the judge’s order as a “blessed event.”  Martha Moxley’s mother said the judge’s ruling does not change her mind, “…I do believe Michael Skakel killed my daughter,” Dorthy Moxley told CNN.  Moxley went on to say, “Mickey Sherman did a wonderful job at that trial.  I was nervous the entire time.”

Connecticut Appellate Judge Thomas Bishop ruled that defense attorney Michael “Mickey” Sherman’s representation of Skakel was “constitutionally deficient.”

“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.”

Sherman said Wednesday that he was happy for his former client.

“A defendant’s constitutional right to adequate representation cannot be overshadowed by the inconvenience and financial and emotional cost of a new trial,” the judge said.

Moxley’s body was found after a night of partying with Skakel, his brother Tommy, and other teenagers in an affluent gated community in Greenwich, CT.  Authorities said she was bludgeoned and stabbed to death with a broken golf club, which was found at the scene.  The case went cold quickly, but a series of books and media interest later led to new tips, which implicated Skakel.  He was 15 at the time of the murder.  RFK Jr. said that his cousin has an airtight alibi, but his defense was poor.  He said there are at least 5 people who saw Skakel 11 miles away at the time of Moxley’s murder.  Christina Valentino, 67, one of the jurors who deliberated three days before finding Skakel guilty in 2002, said that while she was not blown away by the defense, she thought it was “adequate”.  Another juror, Laura Copeland, took a shot at Skakel being well off, “I guess if you have money, you get to keep appealing until you get a judge to say what you want him to say…I still believe we made the right decision.”

Among the mistakes highlighted by the judge:

  • Sherman did nothing to challenge a juror during jury selection that had ties with the police.
  • Sherman failed to present an alibi witness to the jury.
  • Sherman didn’t try to find witnesses who could refute the testimony that Skakel confessed years earlier.
  • Sherman did not deliver a cohesive closing argument to summarize the case for the jury.
  • Sherman did nothing to show that Thomas, Skakel’s older brother, was a good alternative suspect.  Thomas had a sexual encounter with Moxley the night that she died and this could have sown reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury.

Copeland insisted that, at least for her, the circumstantial evidence against Skakel was so compelling that it would have taken a smoking gun by the defense pointing to someone else for her to find Skakel not guilty.  Copeland said that the jury knew that Thomas was a suspect early on and that more evidence of his and Moxley’s relationship would have just bolstered the prosecution due to possible jealousy by Michael Skakel.

“There was no credible evidence against him that couldn’t have been challenged by much stronger evidence,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told TODAY.

Skakel has served 11 years in prison.  Both Michael and Thomas maintain their innocence.  Skakel has requested release on bail because he wants to reconnect with his now 14-year-old son.  The judge has not yet decided whether Skakel should be free awaiting retrial.

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