Murder conviction of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel is tossed because of ineffective assistance

Criminal Justice

Connecticut Supreme Court, New Haven, Connecticut./

The Connecticut Supreme Court on Friday overturned the 2002 murder conviction of Michael Skakel, the nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy.

The court ruled 4-3 that Skakel is entitled to a new trial because of ineffective assistance by his trial lawyer, report the Hartford Courant, the Associated Press and the New York Times. The decision said the lawyer, Michael Sherman, failed to obtain the testimony of a disinterested alibi witness.

The decision granted Skakel’s request to reconsider a 4-3 opinion by the same court that upheld Skakel’s conviction 16 months ago. The Courant points out that a justice who wrote the first majority opinion resigned and was replaced by a justice who became part of the majority overturning the conviction.

Skakel had contended that he, two of his brothers and a cousin were watching television in the cousin’s home around the time of the 1975 murder of Skakel’s 15-year-old neighbor, Martha Moxley. Her body was found on Halloween, and she had been beaten with a golf club belonging to Skakel’s mother.

The alibi witness, Denis Ossorio, was dating the cousin’s sister, and Ossorio says he watched part of the television show with Skakel and others. Skakel contended his lawyer would have realized he needed to question Ossorio based on the grand jury testimony of Ossorio’s girlfriend, who mentioned she was in another room of the home with her “beau” during the program.

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The court said Sherman’s failure to secure the alibi evidence “was constitutionally inexcusable” and said the case against Skakel was “far from overwhelming.” The cornerstone of the state’s case consisted of two witnesses who said Skakel had confessed to the murder in the late 1970s when they were in a drug and alcohol rehab facility.

“Not only was there no forensic evidence or eyewitness testimony linking the petitioner to the crime, the state’s primary witnesses came forward with incriminating evidence more than 20 years after the crime and did so only after either learning of the sizeable reward being offered in the case, reading Mark Fuhrman’s 1998 book, Murder in Greenwich: Who Killed Martha Moxley, inculpating the petitioner, or both.” the Connecticut Supreme Court said. “Although the state’s evidence was sufficient to convict the petitioner, that evidence was far from strong.”

A dissenting judge, Carmen Espinosa, said she wanted to “highlight the continued and disturbing practice … of certain justices of this court ignoring the law and fabricating facts in order to reach their desired result.” She said the majority had allowed Skakel “to use a motion for reconsideration to judge shop and to obtain an unprecedented second bite at the apple.”

“There are thousands of convicted criminals languishing in Connecticut’s prisons, approximately two-thirds of whom are either African-American or Hispanic, who would undoubtedly be thrilled to receive such special treatment,” she wrote. “Unfortunately for them, the vast majority do not share the petitioner’s financial resources, social standing, ethnicity or connections to a political dynasty.”

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Espinosa is set to retire later this month, according to the Courant.

Skakel was freed on bail in November 2013 after a judge approved a retrial. A news story published at the time said Skakel and his family had spared no expense in trying to overturn the conviction, and the case had “drained the family fortune.”

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