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Crime Michael Skakel fires the high-profile defense lawyers who won a reversal of his conviction in a notorious murder

11:42  17 march  2020
11:42  17 march  2020 Source:   latimes.com

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Michael Skakel has fired the lawyers who managed what is widely viewed as a legal miracle — freeing him from a sentence of life in prison and winning a reversal of his conviction for the murder of his teenage next-door-neighbor Martha Moxley in Greenwich five decades ago.

Murder of Martha Moxley et al. standing next to a man in a suit and tie: Michael Skakel with his attorney Hubert Santos, left, and Jessica Santos, another member of his defense team, outside superior court in Stamford Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. © Rick Hartford/Hartford Courant/TNS Michael Skakel with his attorney Hubert Santos, left, and Jessica Santos, another member of his defense team, outside superior court in Stamford Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013.

Skakel, a Kennedy relation who has lived most of his life at the center of one of Connecticut’s most notorious crimes, dumped Hartford lawyer Hubert Santos, who orchestrated the stunning, 2018 legal reversal, and Mike Fitzpatrick, the Bridgeport defense expert Santos hired to help make the argument that finally persuaded the state Supreme Court: Skakel’s trial lawyer was so woefully ineffective that the conviction was unjust.

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Mr. Skakel , a Kennedy nephew, had been convicted in 2002 of killing Ms. Moxley, who lived in the same neighborhood in Greenwich. But in a lacerating dissent, Justice Carmen E. Espinosa argued that more than anything else, Mr. Skakel had benefited from his wealth and prominent connections.

After the reversal, Santos and Fitzpatrick teamed up to handle the continuing defense, but were sacked as they tried to negotiate a resolution with prosecutors that would have freed Skakel from the possibility of a retrial and, eventually, erased the murder conviction from his record.

There has been no explanation for the recent changes in the defense team, which, along with other developments in the case, were disclosed by a variety of sources. None would speak publicly because of a new state law, effective in October, that seals police and court records in serious criminal cases against juveniles.

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Skakel had reached middle age when he was charged with murder in 2000 and convicted by a jury two years later in a case driven by voyeuristic fascination with life among the Greenwich country club set. But he was 15 when accused of killing Moxley in 1975. The new law has sealed tens of thousands of pages of police reports and court records, in addition to the scores of exhibits collected over 44 years in one of the most intensively reported cases ever.

The written appearances filed by Skakel’s lawyers, which might explain their coming and going, are among the newly secret documents. But the sources said the Skakel family has replaced Santos and Fitzpatrick with Stephan E. Seeger, a Stamford lawyer who was part of the original defense team and remained on the periphery of the defense for years.

Seeger acknowledged he represents Skakel, but wouldn’t discuss whether he his replacing anyone or under what circumstances.

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“I’ve been in the case since it started,” Seeger said

He said he joined Sherman’s trial defense in the late 1990s, researching and writing briefs. He said he was not involved in the post conviction appeals pressed by Santos, who was hired within hours of the jury’s guilty verdict in June 2002. Santos appealed twice to the state Supreme Court and once to the U.S, Supreme Court without success before winning the 11th hour habeas corpus petition in 2013 that led ultimately to reversal of the murder conviction.

Seeger won a libel judgment for Skakel against TV crime reporter Nancy Grace after she reported — erroneously — that Skakel’s DNA was found at the top of an evergreen tree outside Moxley’s bedroom window. He moved in court to preserve some evidence after Santos’ win at the habeas hearing. He also worked out a payment plan for Skakel’s brother Stephen, who had been was sued over an unpaid, $8,690.67 credit card bill.

In a 2014 newspaper interview, Seeger said he has always believed Skakel was wrongly convicted and “I want to be one of these lawyers standing beside him when the public realizes he is innocent.”

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The Connecticut Supreme Court, reversing its own decision, vacated the conviction of Michael Skakel , a nephew of Ethel Kennedy who had been found guilty in a neighbor’s 1975 killing. Michael C. Skakel in 2016. The Connecticut Supreme Court vacated his murder conviction on Friday.Credit

Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel 's murder conviction is VACATED after supreme court determined defense attorney The decision reversed the high court's previous ruling in December 2016 that reinstated Skakel 's conviction In a stunning reversal , the Connecticut Supreme Court (pictured)

That time may not be far off.

Richard Colangelo, the former Stamford state’s attorney recently appointed as chief state’s attorney, has had the case since the state Supreme Court reversed the conviction in May 2018. He has to decide whether to retry Skakel. Colangelo won’t discuss his plans, but the record so far suggests retrial would be a formidable task for the prosecution.

Santos claimed in his habeas corpus petition that Skakel’s trial was so riddled with error that Skakel was effectively denied a fair trial. After hearing the evidence, habeas judge Thomas Bishop agreed, concluding the trial defense “was in a myriad of ways ineffective.” Bishop identified 10 specific deficiencies and said that three, by themselves, were serious enough to undermine the verdict and require a new trial. The Supreme Court eventually upheld Bishop and reversed the conviction after focusing on one of the three: Sherman’s failure to locate a witness who could corroborate Skakel’s alibi — in spite of being alerted to the witness through a grand jury transcript provided by the prosecution.

Santos’s successful habeas petition is a guide for putting on another defense — a guide that both Bishop and the state Supreme Court have said probably could lead to acquittal in the event of a retrial.

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But that would be just one of the difficulties Colangelo faces if he decides on a retrial.

Perhaps a third of the prosecution witnesses are missing, dead or otherwise unavailable, among them police detectives, the owner of a controversial reform school for wealthy kids that Skakel attended and the prosecution’s star witness — a drug addict who testified while high on heroin that he heard Skakel confess. And it may be difficult to collect evidence accumulated over nearly half a century and scattered in boxes among courthouses, police stations and prosecutorial offices from Greenwich to Rockville. Some of the evidence has not been tested by genetic matching technology because the technology had not been invented.

Santos and Fitzpatrick are said to have been trying to persuade Colangelo to drop the case by entering a nolle, a legal decision not to prosecute that would likely be followed in 13 months by a dismissal of the murder charge. Colangelo could enter what is referred to as a missing witness nolle, meaning the state is unable to retry based on the missing witnesses.

But whatever decision Colangelo makes will be complicated by his inability to explain himself — the new state law sealing juvenile cases prohibits public discussion of the Skakel case.

A subtext throughout the 44-year-old case has been speculation that the once enormously wealthy Skakel family could purchase influence in the criminal justice system. Such speculation could resume were it to become public knowledge, without explanation, that the case had been dropped.

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Michael Skakel has the ability to allow an explanation by waiving his right to secrecy in return for a nolle.

However the case ends, it is unlikely to match the drama surrounding the Supreme Court’s reversal of the murder conviction.

After a relentless string of legal defeats dating to the 1990s, Skakel’s future was bleak in 2013 when Santos began arguing in the habeas hearing that errors by Sherman had denied Skakel a fair trial. Bishop’s ruling was extraordinary, but it was short-lived.

The state Supreme Court reversed Bishop in a 4-3 decision on Dec. 30, 2016. Skakel was free on a $1.2 million bond after Bishop’s decision. It looked like he was headed back to prison to finish a sentence of from 20 years to life.

Santos asked the Supreme Court to reconsider, a routine request that the court just as routinely rejects.

But something different happened in Skakel’s case. Justice Peter Zarella, author of the decision overturning Bishop, retired from the court. Santos argued that the court had to replace Zarella before it could reconsider. The court agreed, but the process stretched out for months.

Justice Gregory D’Auria was appointed to replace Zarella. After reviewing the file, he reached a different conclusion from the justice he replaced. With D’Auria joining a new, narrow majority, the court reversed itself.

It concluded, 4-3, that Skakel had been wrongly convicted.

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