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Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel wins new trial

HARTFORD — A Connecticut judge granted a new trial Wednesday for Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel, ruling that his attorney failed to adequately represent Skakel when he was convicted in 2002 of killing his neighbor in 1975.

The ruling by Judge Thomas Bishop marked a dramatic reversal after years of unsuccessful appeals by Skakel, the 52-year-old nephew of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy. Skakel is serving 20 years to life.

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Bridgeport State’s Attorney John Smriga said that prosecutors will appeal the decision.

Skakel’s current attorney, Hubert Santos, said he expects to file a motion for bail Thursday. If a judge approves it, Skakel could then post bond and be released from prison.

Skakel argued that his trial attorney, Michael Sherman, was negligent in defending him when Skakel was convicted in the golf club bludgeoning of Martha Moxley when they were 15. Santos called the case weak.

Prosecutors contended that Sherman’s efforts far exceeded standards and that the verdict was based on compelling evidence against Skakel.

At a state trial in April on the appeal, Skakel took the stand and blasted Sherman’s handling of the case, portraying him as overly confident, having fun and basking in the limelight while making basic errors, from poor jury picks to failing to track down key witnesses.

Santos argued that the prosecutors’ case rested entirely on two witnesses of dubious credibility who came forward with stories of confessions after 20 years and the announcement of a reward. Skakel had an alibi, he said.

Santos contends that Sherman was ‘‘too enamored with the media attention to focus on the defense.’’ Sherman told criminal defense attorneys at a seminar in Las Vegas six months before the trial that one of his goals in representing Skakel was to have a ‘‘good time,’’ Santos said.

‘‘Defending a murder charge is not about enjoying oneself; it is about zealously advocating for the client and providing him with the assistance guaranteed by our constitution,’’ Santos wrote in court papers.

‘‘It is not about getting invited to A-list parties in New York City or launch parties for the trendy new television show or going to the Academy Awards and all the ‘cool parties’ afterwards.’’

Sherman has said he did all he could to prevent Skakel’s conviction and denied he was distracted by media attention to the high-profile case.

Santos said Sherman failed to obtain or present evidence against earlier suspects, failed to sufficiently challenge the state’s star witness, and made risky jury picks, including a police officer.

Prosecutors countered that Sherman spent thousands of hours preparing the defense, challenged the state on large and small legal issues, consulted experts, and was assisted by some of the state’s top lawyers. Sherman attacked the state’s evidence, presented an alibi, and pointed the finger at an earlier suspect, prosecutors said.

‘‘This strategy failed, not because of any fault of Sherman’s, but because of the strength of the state’s case,’’ prosecutor Susann Gill wrote in court papers.

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