Ruling for Kennedy nephew Michael Skakel turned on lawyer's performance

In the world of criminals and the law, it is every felon's last plea: It's not my fault that I'm in jail, my lawyer messed up.

Sometimes, the courts even agree.


In Connecticut, a judge ruled in a famous murder case that celebrity lawyer Michael Sherman was ineffective in presenting a viable defense for Michael Skakel. Judge Thomas Bishop ordered a retrial of the Kennedy relative in the 1975 death of Greenwich, Conn., teenager Martha Moxley. The decision was released  Wednesday.

Lawyers for Skakel, now 53, will seek to have their client released on bail, a request that came Thursday, according to the law office of Hubert Santos, the lawyer who won the habeas corpus case sought by Skakel. [Updated 12:25 p.m. PDT Oct. 24: They are seeking a prompt hearing and a bond of no more than $500,000.]

Lawyers for the state of Connecticut have announced they will seek to appeal Bishop's decision, the latest in a long line of litigation in the complicated murder case that roiled a wealthy New York suburb and raised concerns that a Kennedy relative had initially received favorable treatment.

The outline of the case is well-known. Martha, 15, was last seen alive in 1975 at a Halloween party at the Skakel home in Greenwich. She was found the next day under a tree in her family's backyard, apparently beaten to death with a golf club. Skakel was 15 at the time.

For years, there were questions about whether the Skakels were given preferential treatment because of their family ties to the Kennedys. Michael Skakel is the nephew of Ethel Kennedy, born a Skakel.

By 1993, the celebrated writer Dominick Dunne wrote a fictional version of the case, titled "A Season in Purgatory." A year later, Skakel, then a 40-year-old divorced father, was indicted for Martha's murder and he was convicted in 2002.

In 2003, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Skakel's cousin and an attorney, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly a piece titled "A Miscarriage of Justice," arguing that Skakel's indictment "was triggered by an inflamed media, and that an innocent man is now in prison."

"If he gets into a new trial, he will definitely be freed," Kennedy said Tuesday to Matt Lauer on the "Today" show. "I support him not out of misguided family loyalty, but because I believe he is innocent."

Kennedy and other Skakel supporters have maintained that the defendant was 11 miles away from the crime scene and that there are five witnesses who can vouch for his whereabouts. Kennedy also rejects testimony from Gregory Coleman, a Skakel classmate, who said Skakel confessed to the killing. Coleman died of a heroin overdose in 2001.

"Michael's [first] lawyers never tried to find" the witnesses, Kennedy said. "The new lawyers found them…. They all said what Gregory Coleman said was a lie."

In his 135-page ruling, Bishop was both analytical in dissecting and scathing in his conclusion that "Mickey" Sherman, once a frequent commentator on television legal shows, was ineffective.

"The defense of a serious felony prosecution requires attention to detail, an energetic investigation and a coherent plan of defense capably executed. Trial counsel's failures in each of these areas of representation were significant and, ultimately, fatal to a constitutionally adequate defense," the judge wrote.

Skakel's victory is many ways Sherman's defeat. After three days on the stand in the trial that led to Bishop's ruling, Sherman defended himself, but made it clear to reporters that he wanted Skakel, who is about half way through a 20-year-to-life sentence, to be freed from prison.

"I don't have mixed emotions about this," Sherman said outside the courtroom in April. "I want him out of jail. That's the priority."


Sherman repeated that sentiment Monday after the ruling was made public, telling the Hartford Courant: "I've never thought that Michael Skakel was guilty, and I'm happy he's getting a new trial. He deserves it; he deserves to be free."