WASHINGTON – Lawyers for Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel called a Connecticut Supreme Court decision Friday overturning his conviction in the bludgeoning death of 15-year-old neighbor Martha Moxley long-overdue vindication.
The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Skakel, who spent 11 ½ years in prison, had been deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial because his attorney did not present evidence of an alibi. The court reversed its own December 2016 decision reinstating Skakel’s conviction after a lower court had ordered a new trial.
In a statement released after Friday’s 70-page decision, Skakel lawyers Hubert Santos, Michael Fitzpatrick and Roman Martinez wrote: “Today’s ruling makes clear that Michael Skakel spent 11 1/2 years unjustly imprisoned in violation of the Constitution. To be absolutely clear: Michael Skakel is innocent of this crime.”
In the stunning reversal of its own December 2016 ruling upholding Skakel’s conviction, the state Supreme Court ruled that his attorney at his 2002 trial, Mickey Sherman, knew of, but ignored, a witness, Denis Ossorio.
The court found that Ossorio would have vouched for Skakel’s claim since his arrest in 1975 that he was at a home a 20-minute drive away from the murder scene watching “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” on TV around the time the slaying is believed to have occurred in the affluent Greenwich, Conn., enclave of Belle Haven. Ossorio said he was at the home and that Skakel was there at the time.
Acting on a request from Skakel to review the case, the court said in a majority opinion written by Justice Richard N. Palmer: “Sherman’s failure to secure that evidence was constitutionally inexcusable” and “that deficiency undermines confidence in the reliability of the petitioner’s conviction.”
Sherman could not be reached for comment Friday.
The Connecticut Supreme Court’s 2016 decision reinstated Skakel’s conviction after a state Superior Court judge had ordered a new trial in 2013.
In a dissent, Dennis G. Eveleigh asserted that Ossorio’s testimony would not have accounted for the entire window during which Moxley’s murder may have occurred and that Sherman’s representation “was not deficient and, therefore, that the petitioner, Michael Skakel, was not denied his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel.”
“Barely acknowledging that the state’s evidence was sufficiently compelling to persuade 12 jurors beyond a reasonable doubt of the petitioner’s guilt, the majority takes it upon itself to make credibility determinations with regard to trial witnesses whose testimony bore no direct relationship to the alleged deficient performance of defense counsel,” Eveleigh wrote.
Skakel – a nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy — has been free on $1.2 million bond since late 2013 after prosecutors appealed the ruling granting him a new trial. He had been sentenced to 20 years to life in prison in Moxley’s murder, which occurred when he was a 15-year-old.
Former Justice Peter T. Zarella had resigned after writing the 2016 decision upholding Skakel’s conviction. Zarella’s replacement, Justice Gregory T. D’Auria, joined the 4-3 majority in overturning the decision Friday.