In a decision certain to start new debate over a notorious, old crime, a divided Connecticut Supreme Court abruptly reversed itself Friday, overturning Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel’s conviction for the murder of his friend Martha Moxley a half century ago, when the two were 15-year old neighbors in an exclusive Greenwich community, the Hartford Courant reports. (Skakel’s father was Ethel Kennedy’s brother.) The court ruled 4-3 that Skakel’s trial lawyer was so ineffective that his right to a fair trial was violated. Just 16 months ago, the court took the opposite position. In that 4-3 decision, the court concluded on the same facts that Skakel’s criminal defense was competent, that his conviction should stand and that he should finish serving his life sentence.
Friday’s ruling means that, 43 years after Moxley was beaten to death with a golf club and 15 years after a jury convicted Skakel of murder, the charge is vacated. Skakel has been free since late 2013 while the court considered this latest appeal. He is expected to remain free unless prosecutors make what many lawyers predict would be an unlikely decision to retry him on decades-old evidence. The changed decision resulted from a new lineup on the court. Justice Peter Zarella resigned after writing the earlier, majority decision upholding Skakel’s conviction and was replaced by Justice Gregory D’Auria, who became part of the new majority. Justice Richard Palmer concluded that the defense of Skakel by Michael Sherman was so far beneath the accepted standard of professional competence that the jury’s guilty verdict cannot be relied upon.