NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — A judge was wrong to grant a new trial last year to Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel, prosecutors said, saying it would have been “foolish” for Skakel’s trial attorney to focus more on Skakel’s brother.
Prosecutors filed an appeal Friday with the state Supreme Court seeking to reverse a ruling by Judge Thomas Bishop, who ruled that Skakel’s trial attorney failed to adequately represent him in 2002 when he was convicted of fatally bludgeoning Martha Moxley with a golf club in 1975, when they were both 15.
Bishop said Skakel, the 53-year-old nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, likely would have been acquitted if the defense focused more on Thomas Skakel.
Thomas Skakel was an early suspect in the case, because he was the last person seen with Moxley. But prosecutors say highlighting Thomas Skakel’s relationship with Moxley would have bolstered their argument that Michael Skakel killed her in a jealous rage. Michael Skakel had admitted that he was aware his brother had sexual contact with the victim the night of the murder and told one woman that is what triggered it, prosecutors wrote.
“To highlight Tommy Skakel’s relationship with Martha would play directly into the state’s hand,” prosecutors wrote. Skakel’s trial attorney, Michael Sherman, “would have been foolish to emphasize the very thing that triggered (Skakel’s) rage: Tommy’s amorous relationship with Martha.”
Skakel’s current attorney, Hubert Santos, has said Thomas Skakel’s encounter with Martha could have occurred as little as 10 minutes before the killing in Greenwich, though another medical examiner said the crime could have occurred later.
Sherman has defended his work. He said there was a lack of evidence to focus on Thomas Skakel and that he had a better case against another early suspect that formed a key part of his defense.
Bishop rejected that claim, saying Thomas Skakel changed his account of the night of the murder years later.
Thomas Skakel admitted he had a sexual encounter with the victim, and the defense could have argued that what could have started as a consensual encounter “may have turned terribly bad,” the judge wrote, noting that the defense only needed to cast doubt that Michael Skakel killed Moxley, not convince the jury that his brother committed the crime.
Prosecutors say there was no evidence to suggest anything happened between Thomas Skakel and the victim that would have caused him to lose his temper.
Michael Skakel was freed from prison last year after the ruling. He maintains his innocence while the victim’s family says they remain convinced he’s guilty.
Prosecutors say they’ll retry Skakel if their appeal fails. It’s unclear when the high court will rule.
Bishop also granted a new trial on the grounds that Sherman failed to locate a witness who backed up Skakel’s alibi that he was at his cousin’s house the night of the murder and failed to find a man who challenged a star witness’s claim that Skakel confessed.
Prosecutors objected to those findings as well, saying the man who challenged the state’s star witness was deaf in one ear. They say another alibi witness would not have changed the verdict.
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