HARTFORD, Conn. — In a stunning reversal, the Connecticut Supreme Court on Friday overturned Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel’s murder conviction in the 1975 bludgeoning death of a girl in wealthy Greenwich.
The high court issued a 4-3 ruling that Skakel’s trial attorney failed to present evidence of an alibi. The same court in December 2016 had reinstated Skakel’s conviction after a lower court ordered a new trial, citing mistakes by the trial attorney, Mickey Sherman.
It wasn’t immediately clear if prosecutors will subject Skakel to a new trial. A spokesman for Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said prosecutors were reviewing the new ruling. He declined further comment.
Skakel, a nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, was convicted of murder in 2002 in the death of Martha Moxley in 1975 when they were teenagers. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, but was freed on $1.2 million bail after serving 11 years behind bars when the lower court overturned his murder conviction in 2013.
The case has drawn international attention because of the Kennedy name, Skakel’s rich family, numerous theories about who killed Moxley and the brutal way in which she died. Several other people, including Skakel’s brother Tommy Skakel, have been mentioned as possible killers.
The slaying took place in the exclusive Bell Haven section of Greenwich where Martha and Skakel were neighbors. At trial, prosecutors said Skakel was angry with Martha because she had spurned his advances while having a sexual liaison with his brother Tommy.
Skakel’s appellate lawyer, Hubert Santos, had asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its 2016 ruling, resulting in Friday’s decision.
“We’re elated that our argument was vindicated,” Santos said Friday. “It was a good decision because it was spot on the law.”
Santos argued that Sherman made poor decisions, including not focusing on Skakel’s brother as a possible suspect and failing to attempt to contact an alibi witness. Santos said Skakel was several miles away from the crime scene on Oct. 30, 1975 watching a Monty Python movie with friends when Moxley was bludgeoned with a golf club.
Santos also has said there was no physical evidence or eyewitnesses linking Skakel to the killing.
Sherman has defended his work, and state prosecutors have argued he did an adequate job. The Associated Press left a message with him Friday seeking comment on the ruling.
Conservative Justice Peter Zarella wrote the majority opinion when the highly divided Supreme Court reinstated Skakel’s conviction in a 4-3 ruling in December 2016. Zarella left the court at the end of 2016 to return to private practice.
When the Supreme Court ruled Friday, the panel included the same justices that ruled in 2016 — minus Zarella. It included Justice Gregory D’Auria, a former lawyer in the state attorney general’s office named to the court last year. D’Auria was in the majority decision Friday.
The high court’s reversal of a previous ruling is highly unusual, legal observers said.
Writing for the majority Friday, Justice Richard Palmer said Skakel was prejudiced in the case by Sherman’s failure to obtain alibi testimony from witness Denis Ossorio.
“Without Ossorio’s testimony, the state was able to attack the petitioner’s (Skakel’s) alibi — a complete alibi for the time period during which it is highly likely that the victim was murdered — as part of a Skakel family conspiracy to cover up the petitioner’s involvement in the victim’s murder,” Palmer wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Dennis Eveleigh noted that the exact time of the killing was never established and a medical examiner’s report concluded it likely happened sometime between 9:30 p.m. and 4:30 or 5:30 the next morning.
“I believe that the majority fails to consider the well-established rule that, as a matter of law, an alibi defense is no defense at all when it is reasonably possible that the crime was committed outside of the alibi period. That is certainly the case here,” Eveleigh wrote.
Moxley’s brother, John Moxley, told the AP that he was disappointed with the ruling and that it was too soon to say what the family would want next in the case.
“I don’t know what the next steps are. My mom is getting older. I just don’t think she has the strength to go on with this,” said Moxley, 59.
He said he would not trade places with Skakel for anything.
“He’ll be in jail for the rest of his life,” Moxley said. “He may not be physically in jail. He may be walking the streets, but he’ll be in hell at some point.”
Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this report.