STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) — Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel got his first taste of freedom in more than 11 years Thursday when he was freed on bail while prosecutors appeal a ruling granting him a new trial in the 1975 slaying of neighbor Martha Moxley.
Skakel, the 53-year-old nephew of Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel, touched his hand to his chest and looked back at supporters in the courtroom, his brothers among them, as the judge set bail at $1.2 million. He had been in prison more than 11 years on a sentence of 20 years to life but walked out of court a couple of hours after the hearing in Stamford Superior Court.
As conditions of bail, the judge ordered that Skakel live in Connecticut and wear a GPS tracking device. His lawyer has not said where he'll live.
"He's one of the most recognized faces of America, so he's not going anywhere," defense attorney Hubert Santos said, noting that Skakel always showed up for court appearances. Santos said after the hearing ended that Skakel was "very happy" about the outcome. Skakel did not speak to reporters.
A judge ruled last month that Skakel's trial attorney, Michael Sherman, failed to adequately represent Skakel in 2002 when he was convicted in Moxley's bludgeoning with a golf club in wealthy Greenwich when they were both 15. Judge Thomas Bishop said 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.
"This is the first step in correcting a terrible wrong," the Skakel family said in a statement. "We look forward to Michael being vindicated and justice finally being served."
Outside court, Moxley's brother John and mother, Dorthy, said they disagreed with the bail decision, continue to believe Skakel killed Martha and are confident he will be convicted again at a new trial.
"I'm disappointed. ... I guess we knew that the day would come," Dorthy Moxley said. "I wasn't completely destroyed, but I wish it didn't happen."
Added John Moxley, "We have nothing to say to Michael."
Robert Kennedy Jr., who campaigned to overturn Skakel's conviction, had said this week that he felt "pure joy" that his cousin was expected to be released. Skakel has seen his son only a handful of times since he was sent to prison, he said.
"Everybody in my family knows that Michael is innocent," Kennedy said Tuesday. "He was in jail for over a decade for a crime he didn't commit. The only crime that he committed was having a bad lawyer."
Santos, had argued that Skakel should be released immediately, saying that the ruling makes him an innocent defendant awaiting trial and that he was not a flight risk. Santos also argued prosecutors were highly unlikely to win their appeal, a contention prosecutors dispute.
The case was considered a big challenge for prosecutors because of issues including the age of the crime and the lack of forensic evidence. Michael Skakel was convicted after a trial that focused on testimony that he confessed or made incriminating statements over the years.
Both Sherman and prosecutors defended his handling of the case.
Skakel's older brother Thomas was an early suspect in the case because he was the last person seen with the victim, and Bishop said in his ruling that Michael Skakel's defense should have focused more on Thomas.
Full statement from Skakel's family:
"This is the first step in correcting a terrible wrong. We look forward to Michael being vindicated and justice finally being served. 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."