STAMFORD, Conn. - No longer in handcuffs or leg shackles, Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel walked out of court Thursday into the autumn chill a free man for the first time in more than a decade, released 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 Stamford Superior Court in a suit and tie after posting cash bond in the form of bank checks.
But the long-running legal battle is far from over. Prosecutors filed an appeal Wednesday over the ruling granting a new trial, vowed for the first time to retry Skakel if they lose the appeal and clashed again with Skakel's attorney over the strength of their evidence.
In the meantime, Skakel was ordered as conditions of bail to reside in Connecticut - his lawyer did not say where he will live - and wear a GPS tracking device. "He's one of the most recognized faces of America, so he's not going anywhere," defense attorney Hubert Santos said. Santos said his client was "very happy" about the outcome of the hearing. Skakel did not speak to reporters.
Skakel's ongoing effort to be freed got a boost last month when a judge ruled that his 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 would 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."
After the ruling granting a new trial, 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. Skakel was convicted after a trial that focused on testimony that he confessed or made incriminating statements over the years.
Santos slammed the case again during the hearing, saying there was no DNA evidence, no fingerprints, no witnesses and that a man who said Skakel confessed to him only came forward more than two decades later when there was a reward.
But prosecutor John Smriga said the state's case was tested in several appeals and the conviction was upheld. He acknowledged the lack of DNA evidence and witnesses to the crime, but said the evidence consisted of many little pieces that he compared to a jigsaw puzzle his predecessor explained to the jury.
"We're prepared to do that again if necessary," Smriga said.
Smriga sought higher bail for Skakel than the $500,000 proposed by Santos, noting the brutality of the crime and Skakel's resources. He contrasted Skakel with other defendants, noting he traveled the world skiing and even met Mother Theresa.