Almost 40 years after a brutal slaying launched an investigation culminating in Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel’s imprisonment, a Connecticut judge reversed his conviction Wednesday, saying the defense attorney had botched the job.
And one of America’s most notorious cold cases tumbled wide open.
Martha Moxley, 15, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in 1975 in Greenwich, Conn., a posh community about 35 miles northeast of New York City. Skakel, who lived next door at the time, was convicted in 2002 after a friend told authorities Skakel had confessed to him.
In a 136-page ruling, Connecticut Judge Thomas Bishop ordered a new trial for Skakel and blasted the efforts of defense attorney Michael Sherman, citing multiple failures. Sherman had never mentioned to the jury the concepts of reasonable doubt or the automatic presumption of innocence, the judge said. In addition, Bishop said, Sherman should have pointed the finger at Skakel’s brother as the possible killer.
The celebrated case dates from Oct. 30, 1975, when Martha and some friends were celebrating Halloween by pulling pranks around Belle Haven, a shoreline community inside one of America’s wealthiest cities. Afterward, she stopped by the Skakel house next door. By the end of the night, she was dead.
Martha had been repeatedly bludgeoned with a 6-iron golf club that broke in half and was then used to stab her several times, including through her throat. Her pants and panties had been pulled down around her ankles, but there was no clear indication she had been sexually assaulted, authorities say.
Suspects piled up, including three in the Skakel household: Kenneth Littleton, 24, a live-in tutor; Thomas Skakel, 17, who had been flirtatious with Martha before her death; and his little brother, Michael Skakel, who, like Martha, was 15. The brothers were nephews of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
Greenwich had not experienced a homicide in years, and local investigators would later be criticized for failing to thoroughly and speedily investigate the case.
Michael Skakel was not indicted until 2000, after a friend contacted authorities. He maintained his innocence, but was convicted two years later largely on circumstantial evidence and the theory that he was jealous of his older brother, Thomas, for stealing Martha’s affections.
He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
In 2012, Skakel was denied parole. Even then, he maintained his innocence and expressed optimism that he would be freed by the upcoming appeal.
In his ruling, Bishop leveled some of his most damning criticism at Sherman for failing to paint Skakel’s brother as the girl’s killer.
Sherman never mentioned Thomas Skakel’s admission to a private investigator that he had fondled and partially undressed Martha behind his home shortly before she was killed, the judge said. Nor had he mentioned that Thomas had apparently lied about doing homework that night that his school had never assigned.
“Attorney Sherman’s failure to point an accusatory finger at T. Skakel was and is inexplicable,” Bishop wrote.
Sherman said he was not surprised. “I’ve never thought that Michael Skakel was guilty, and I’m happy he’s getting a new trial,” he told the Hartford Courant. “He deserves it; he deserves to be free.”
Skakel, now 53, was expected to apply for bail as soon as Thursday.
Prosecutors vowed to appeal, contending that Sherman did an excellent job.
“This strategy failed not because of any fault of Sherman’s, but because of the strength of the state’s case,” prosecutor Susann Gill wrote in court papers. Skakel had confessed three times and made nearly a dozen incriminating statements over the years, Gill wrote.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. went on CNN to praise Bishop’s ruling and to defend Thomas Skakel from insinuations that he could have been a plausible murder suspect.
“Thomas has never been on trial for this,” Kennedy said, adding, “The judge was not saying Tommy Skakel is guilty.”
But Martha Moxley’s mother, Dorthy, 81, told CNN she was not giving up, saying: “I do believe Michael Skakel killed my daughter. I don’t believe there’s any doubt in that.”
If there is a new trial for Skakel, she said, “I will be there.”