- The Washington Times - Monday, April 12, 2010

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut Supreme Court on Monday upended Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel’s bid for a new trial in the 1975 killing of his 15-year-old neighbor, rejecting an appeal that cited a claim implicating two other men.

The court ruled 4-1 against Skakel’s request, saying the evidence doesn’t back up the alternate claim.

Skakel — a nephew of Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel — was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison in 2002 for fatally beating Martha Moxley with a golf club in a wealthy Connecticut suburb. Monday’s decision came after years of appeals and a campaign by Skakel’s cousin, Robert Kennedy Jr.

Prosecutor Susann Gill said she was pleased with the ruling denying Skakel a new trial and “hopefully sparing the Moxley family any further ordeal.”

Skakel’s attorneys, Hope Seeley and Hubert Santos, said it was a “travesty” that Connecticut courts won’t allow a jury to evaluate the evidence.

“Fairness and justice require no less,” they said in a statement, vowing to pursue state and federal habeas corpus actions.

Skakel, 49, sought a new trial after Gitano “Tony” Bryant, who attended the same private school as Skakel, implicated two friends in the killing. A judge turned down that request in 2007, and Skakel then appealed to the state’s highest court.

Mr. Bryant gave a videotaped statement to an investigator hired by Skakel in which he said his two friends were in Greenwich the night Moxley was killed. He said they told him they got Moxley “caveman style.”

Mr. Bryant since has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The two men he implicated have done the same.

Prosecutors have said Mr. Bryant’s claim was fabricated and that nobody saw him and his friends in the predominantly white, gated neighborhood the night of the murder. Mr. Bryant and one of the men he implicated are black; the other has been described as mixed race.

The high court agreed with the trial judge and prosecutors that no one recalled seeing Mr. Bryant or his friends in the neighborhood that night. Furthermore, Mr. Bryant’s account of his friends picking up golf clubs that night did not match the evidence, the high court said, citing the testimony of a detective who said the golf clubs were found inside the Skakel house.

“There is no evidence, independent of Bryant, to corroborate any significant aspect of his account of the events of the night of Oct. 30, 1975, whereas there is a plethora of evidence to contradict his account,” Justice Joette Katz wrote for the majority.

The court also questioned Mr. Bryant’s credibility. He initially made his claim to a friend while they discussed collaborating on a screenplay about the crime, the court noted. His account “may not have been the only time that Bryant lied to or misled these friends,” the court said, citing his claims that he was an entertainment lawyer even though he wasn’t licensed to practice law.

Justice Richard Palmer was the lone dissenter, saying he was convinced that the trial court improperly denied Skakel a new trial.

“At the very least, it is likely that this new evidence, when considered in light of the state’s thin case against the petitioner, would give rise to a reasonable doubt” about Skakel’s guilt, Justice Palmer wrote.

Justice Palmer wrote that he believed the lower court failed to evaluate the significance of the new information. Under state law, new evidence only has to meet a “minimum credibility threshold” for a new trial to be required, Justice Palmer wrote.

“The evidence that Bryant provided during the course of his lengthy and detailed video-recorded interview satisfies all of the requirements necessary for a new trial,” Justice Palmer wrote.

Justice Peter Zarella, in a concurring opinion joined by Justice C. Ian McLachlan, wrote that the majority failed to address the admissibility of the Bryant evidence. He concluded it amounts to “inadmissible hearsay” that would not change the verdict.

To win a new trial, Skakel’s attorneys would have had to prove that new evidence not available before his conviction could have changed the verdict.

Skakel also challenged the credibility of a star prosecution witness, who testified that Skakel confessed to him when they attended a private boarding school. After Skakel’s conviction, his attorneys found three men the classmate named as possibly being present for the confession, but none said they had heard it.

The Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge that the three witnesses could have been found before the trial and that Skakel’s trial attorney, Michael Sherman, failed to exercise due diligence in finding the witnesses.

The high court also said Mr. Sherman did not do enough to obtain reports on earlier suspects compiled by investigators.

Ms. Seeley said she was still considering whether to pursue an appeal that Skakel was ineffectively represented by Mr. Sherman. Ms. Seeley has said Mr. Sherman failed to fully investigate witnesses because he had financial difficulties, a claim Mr. Sherman denies.

In 2006, Skakel lost an appeal before the state Supreme Court in which he argued, among other things, that the statute of limitations had expired when he was charged in 2000. He still has an appeal pending in federal court.

Associated Press writers Dave Collins and Stephen Singer contributed to this story.

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