Skakel a free man, bond set at $1.2M
STAMFORD -- Michael Skakel is a free man -- for now.
Imprisoned for the past 11 years in the 1975 slaying of Greenwich teenager Martha Moxley -- a crime that remains an obsession for many because of its confluence of power, privilege and tragedy -- the nephew of the late Robert F. Kennedy was granted bail Thursday while he awaits a new trial.
Skakel, 53, posted a bond of $1.2 million in state Superior Court in Stamford, $700,000 more than his lawyers requested for a client they said poses a minimal risk of flight, after a hearing of less than an hour.
"He's one of the most recognizable faces in America, so he's not going anywhere," said Hubert Santos, Skakel's lead counsel.
Skakel's siblings presented the criminal clerk with a cashier's check for the full bail amount, enabling the former convict to leave the courthouse with his family at his side, not to mention a bodyguard, for the first time since his conviction in 2002.
"This is the first step in correcting a terrible wrong. We look forward to Michael being vindicated and justice finally being served," the Skakel family said in a statement released shortly after the decision was announced. "We are thankful to God that after 11 and one half years, he will be reunited with his son. We are grateful for the love and prayers of Michael's many supporters who have sustained him through this ordeal."
One family's gratification -- culminating with a round of applause from the Skakels when the hearing adjourned -- was another family's anguish, however.
"Right now, I just sort of feel numb," Moxley's mother, Dorthy, who sat in the front row of the courtroom, told Greenwich Time after the hearing. "He's definitely guilty. I know it."
Running out of appeals, Skakel's high-priced legal team finally pulled the right levers to spring their client by arguing this year that he was deprived of a competent defense by his former lawyer, Michael "Mickey" Sherman.
A judge -- different from the one presiding over the bond hearing -- vacated Skakel's conviction last month in the golf club bludgeoning of Moxley. The basis for the decision, which the state is appealing, is that Sherman was so mesmerized by the notoriety of the case that he failed to target other suspects.
Both Moxley and Skakel were 15 years old at the time of the murder, which happened the night before Halloween in the patrician neighborhood of Belle Haven. An arrest warrant wasn't issued until 2000 for Skakel, who was tried as an adult and has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
"This is something where his lawyer has been found defective, but he hasn't been found innocent," said John Smirga, the state's attorney for the Fairfield Judicial District, said during the hearing. "It's a very serious crime and it was a particularly brutal crime. The weight of the state's case has been tested over and over and over again."
But prosecutors were thwarted in their bid to set bail closer to $2 million for Skakel, who wore a pin-striped charcoal suit, white dress shirt and blue tie with what appeared to be ice fishermen on it.
Around 2 p.m. Thursday, Skakel, appearing somewhat dazed, emerged from the six-story brick edifice, one that wasn't even built when he was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. He was greeted by a receiving line of cameras from national television networks and a scrum of reporters, including "Today" show host and Greenwich native Matt Lauer, who is expected to interview Santos but not Skakel on Friday's program.
"Gotta have money to get this kind of attention," a woman leaving the courthouse sarcastically muttered to reporters.
Santos briefly addressed the media from a podium before his client was whisked away in a blue Hyundai rental car to an undisclosed location, a meticulously choreographed exit for a man who has come to be associated with perp walks over the past decade. In addition to judicial marshals, he was given an escort by Stamford police.
Skakel gave the Norwalk address of his younger brother, Stephen Skakel, as his place of residence on his bond paperwork, Greenwich Time has learned. At the single-family home, family members started gathering shortly before dinnertime, though it was unclear if Skakel was inside.
The neighborhood is a stark contrast from Skakel's roots in Belle Haven, a mainstay with captains of industry that sits on a promontory overlooking Long Island Sound and has its own security force.
A SUV with a flat tire was parked in the tiny front driveway of Skakel's adopted dwelling in Norwalk. Chickens roamed through a neighbor's front yard on the other side of the no-outlet street, which is barely wide enough to accommodate two lanes of traffic and is partly obstructed by bags of leaves on the shoulder.
Under the terms of his release, set by Judge Gary White, Skakel cannot leave Connecticut without permission and must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet on his ankle. He is not to have contact with the Moxley family, which lives in New Jersey, and must check in every other week with the bail commissioner.
Santos portrayed his client as a model citizen who traveled from his Hobe Sound, Fla., home to turn himself in to police once he learned of a warrant for his arrest.
"Here, we have a track record of an individual who has appeared every time he has been asked to appear," Santos said.
Inside the sixth-floor courtroom, journalists crammed into the wooden pews of the gallery and a separate overflow room.
Prosecutors did not oppose the bond -- saying there was no legal basis. But based on a review of 259 active murder and attempted murder cases in the state, they said a bond of $500,000 is virtually unheard of for a crime of its magnitude, especially for someone of Skakel's wealth and history of mental health problems.
"The background of the defendant is unusual in this regard," Smirga said. "The numbers of people in this report are not people who have traveled the world skiing or met Mother Teresa."
The bail commissioner's office had recommended a $1 million bond, which Skakel had the option to post by using a bail bondsman.
Lawyers for the Kennedy kin took great pains to keep details about his post-incarceration lifestyle under wraps, telling the judge that widespread media coverage of the case created a prejudicial environment for Skakel.
"He never got a fair trial because of the enormous publicity and the influence of other people," Santos said.
Santos characterized the case against Skakel, who has a 14-year-old son who lives out of state, as flimsy.
"No DNA evidence. No fingerprints. No eyewitnesses," Santos said.
Prosecutors said the elements of their case augment each other and shouldn't be looked at in a vacuum.
"There's all very little pieces," Smirga said. "It's like being handed a giant jigsaw puzzle and you don't have the box and don't know what it's supposed to look like."
At the conclusion of the hearing, Skakel patted his heart and smiled at his family and friends, including Vito Colucci Jr., a former Stamford cop turned private eye who helped to coordinate Skakel's exit from the courthouse.
Kris Steele, an ex-basketball player with a power forward's build who was often seen at the side of Skakel during the criminal trial a decade ago, reprised his role as Skakel's bodyguard.
Outside the courthouse, former Newsday columnist and longtime Skakel adversary Leonard Levitt, author of the 2004 book, "Conviction: Solving the Moxley Murder: A Reporter and a Detective's Twenty-Year Search for Justice," left the unfolding scene showing disgust.
When Skakel finally did emerge, he was swarmed by reporters, some of whom tried to trail him in their own vehicles. Skakel's caravan got separation at a red light.
Moxley was long gone. When she got home, she saw the footage of Skakel leaving the courthouse.
"I do hope that the habeas is overturned," Moxley told the newspaper.
Santos was conciliatory toward Moxley during the hearing.
"One tragedy is the death of Martha Moxley," he said. "No one can even comprehend that type of loss in probably the safest neighborhood in the world."
Skakel's lawyer said two tragedies have befallen the former neighbors, with the second robbing his client of precious time with his son.
"It's one thing to lose those years when you're innocent," he said. "It's another to lose contact with your child."
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