Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison upon his murder conviction in 2002…
(Edmund H. Mahony, The Hartford Courant) The U.S Supreme Court will not hear Connecticut’s appeal in its murder case against Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel, leaving prosecutors to choose between retrying a 43-year-old case and letting one of the state’s most notorious crimes languish without a conviction.
The court announced Monday — without explanation, as is its practice — that it won’t consider the prosecution’s appeal from a state Supreme Court’s decision last year overturning Skakel’s conviction for the murder of Martha Moxley in 1975, when the two were teenaged neighbors in an exclusive Greenwich neighborhood.
The state court, in a highly unusual decision, reversed itself and concluded that the failure by Skakel’s original lawyers to identify and call an alibi witness at his 2002 criminal trial made the overall defense so ineffective that the jury’s guilty verdict cannot be relied upon.
State prosecutions had hoped to argue on appeal that the 4-3 majority in the Connecticut decision misapplied federal law defining ineffective legal assistance, was guilty of inappropriate second guessing and that Skakel’s trial defense was, overall, vigorous and effective.
Dorthy Moxley, the victim’s 87-year-old mother, said she spoke earlier Monday with state prosecutors about the Supreme Court and told them a decision about whether to retry the case is up to them and she will support them regardless of the choice.
“First of all, I am so appreciative of everything that the state of Connecticut prosecutors have done,” Moxley said. “They have really worked so hard on this case. And they put together a very good case. I truly believe that Michael Skakel killed my daughter.”
“Anything the state’s attorney wants to do, I will cooperate,” she said. “I am disappointed that the Supreme Court turned us down. But I understand it.”
“I’m looking at it with an open mind,” Moxley said. “If they want another trial, I’ll be there. If I have to, I’ll be there in a wheel chair. We have been going after this for 43 years. The state of Connecticut has gone at this in every way and they have done a great job. Nothing will ever bring Martha back. But I like to think now that she had 15 good years.”
Skakel’s lawyers applauded the decision.
“The Supreme Court did the right thing in rejecting Connecticut’s appeal,” said Roman Martinez, who opposed the state’s appeal at the U.S. “Supreme Court. “Over the past decade, two Connecticut courts — including the Connecticut Supreme Court — have painstakingly reviewed every detail of Michael Skakel’s case. Both reached the same conclusion: Michael’s conviction violated the US Constitution. It was the result of a deeply unfair trial.
“The exculpatory evidence that emerged after Michael’s trial shows that Michael spent 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. We hope that the State of Connecticut will see the justice in giving Michael the chance to rebuild his life in peace. The Supreme Court’s decision rejecting review should end this case once and for all.”
Skakel lawyer Hubert Santos, who persuaded the state Supreme Court to reverse Skakel’s conviction, was not immediately available.
Appellate specialists from the chief State’s Attorney’s office tried to press the appeal at the nation’s top court. The decision on how — or whether- to proceed further will be made by Richard J. Colangelo, State’s Attorney for the judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk, which includes Greenwich.
Colangelo, who was nine-years old when Martha Moxley was beaten and stabbed to death with a golf club, said Monday he is considering all options.
“I’m going to continue reviewing all the police reports and the transcripts and I’ll make a determination on what the next step is going to be,” Colangelo said Monday.
Foremost among the considerations will be a discussion with Dorothy Moxley, who has spent decades pressing authorities for a conviction.
“We appreciate the Supreme Court’s consideration of the State’s petition,” the chief State’s Attorney’s office, which attempted to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, said in a statement. “Any further comment on the matter will be made to the court to which the case will be returned and only after the Moxley family has been informed. We extend our condolences to Mrs. Moxley and her family on their tragic loss.”
Skakel was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison upon his murder conviction in 2002. He was released in 2013 after Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Bishop overturned the conviction, ruling that Skakel was denied a fair trial, based on claims made by Santos at a habeas corpus trial of ineffective lawyering by the original defense team.
Prosecutors appealed Bishop’s reversal to the state Supreme Court, which overturned Bishop in December 2016. The sharply divided state Supreme Court said then, in a 4-3 decision, that Skakel’s trial defense may not have been perfect, but it was overall vigorous and effective.
Santos asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider and in May 2018, the court reversed itself, based on the same facts and law, in another 4-3 decision. What changed in the interim was the court’s composition. Justice Peter T. Zarella resigned after writing the first, majority decision upholding conviction and was replaced by Justice Gregory T. D’Auria, who became part of the second majority for reversal.
Eleven states supported Connecticut’s effort to reinstate the conviction and joined in the attempt to put the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Colangelo will face a formidable challenge should he decide to retry Skakel. Two principal prosecution witnesses have died and boxes of evidence have been spread among police stations, prosecutorial offices and courthouses from Greenwich to Rockville.
In addition, whoever defends Skakel in a new trial will have the benefit of correcting all the legal deficiencies Santos and his former partner Hope Seeley identified in the first trial defense. Bishop found 10 significant lapses in the original defense and said the jury might have acquitted if any one of three had not occurred.
Chief among the lapses was original defense lawyer Michael Sherman’s failure to call the witness who could have corroborated Skakel’s alibi that he was across town, watching television with relatives when most experts believe Martha Moxley was killed. Sherman has said that the alibi was at the center of his defense.
©2019 The Hartford Courant. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.