A Connecticut judge decided that he lacked the authority to immediately release Michael Skakel while he awaits a new trial in the 1975 slaying of Martha Moxley, but opened the door for a higher court to decide whether the Kennedy cousin should be allowed bail.
Judge Thomas Bishop heard arguments Wednesday morning then issued rulings that will keep Skakel in jail for the time being, but also lifted a stay of his previous orders in the case. In effect, the rulings mean that the state of Connecticut automatically gets 10 days to appeal and that a higher court will decide if Bishop has acted correctly.
If Bishop's ruling is upheld, the whole matter goes back to criminal court and Skakel can seek bail, a process that Bishop said he thought would be relatively quick since Skakel was in prison.
“We’re almost there,” an unidentified voice told Skakel as the 53-year-old listened to Bishop’s decisions. Wearing handcuffs, an open shirt and sports jacket without a tie, Skakel showed no emotion during the televised hearing.
Wednesday’s legal wrangling was the latest battle in the celebrated murder case that stunned the nation because it involved a teenage girl in the affluent suburb of Greenwich, Conn., and the leading suspect was the nephew of Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel.
Bishop ruled on Oct. 23 that Skakel’s previous attorney, celebrity lawyer Michael Sherman, had failed to adequately represent him in 2002 when he was convicted of murdering Moxley, then 15 years old like Skakel. They were neighbors in Greenwich and the girl was bludgeoned with a golf club. In his ruling, Bishop ordered a new trial for Skakel, who had been sentenced to 20 years to life.
Skakel's current attorney, Hubert Santos, had sought another hearing and asked that the judge set a bail bond of no more than $500,000, a figure Santos said Skakel could meet.
Bishop all along has questioned whether he has the authority to consider a motion for bond because technically his orders in the case were automatically stayed while appeals were pending and Connecticut law excludes bail for those convicted of murder. Prosecutor Susann Gill argued that lifting the stay would block justice by requiring the state to retry Skakel before an appeal is finished.
Santos on Wednesday insisted that Bishop had the authority to set bail and keeping Skakel in prison would be a miscarriage of justice especially given the judge’s ruling that Skakel’s right to effective counsel had been violated. Santos said automatic stays during appeals do not apply to cases like Skakel's and even if they did the court has the authority to terminate the stay.
In his ruling, Bishop decided he lacked the authority to immediately order bail for Skakel. This court has power, Bishop said, but the authority “might not be unbounded and is not applicable to this case.”
Bishop, however, lifted the stay. That gives the state 10 days to seek appeal and leaves it to the higher court to send the case back to the criminal court for bail issues.