After 11 years behind bars for the 1975 murder of teenager Martha Moxley, Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel was released on $1.2 million bond Thursday while he awaits a new trial.
There was a smattering of applause as Skakel, 53, was led out of the courtroom to post bond. A few hours later, he was smiling as he walked outside, flanked by lawyers.
He did not speak but a statement from his family said his release would be "the first step in correcting a terrible wrong."
"We look forward to Michael being vindicated and justice finally being served," the statement said.
Skakel, the nephew of Robert F. Kennedy's widow has been in a maximum-security prison since being convicted of murdering Moxley when they were both 15 years old and neighbors in tony Greenwich, Conn.
Prosecutors are appealing that decision but said they did not have any legal basis for opposing Skakel's release on bond. However, they argued the defense's request for a $500,000 bond was too low given the Skakel family's wealth.
"It was a particularly brutal crime," prosecutor John Smirga said, suggesting a figure closer to $2 million would be more appropriate.
Skakel's appeals lawyer, Hubert Santos, said when a warrant was first issued for his client more than a decade ago, he flew to Connecticut from Florida and surrendered. Bond was set at $500,000 at that time.
"He's got an excellent track record. He's one of the most recognizable faces in America," Santos said. "He wants to see his son."
Skakel listened quietly in the packed Stamford courtroom as Superior Court Judge Gary White set bond at $1.2 million, barred him from leaving the state without permission, and ordered him to wear a GPS monitoring device.
Moxley's mother, Dorothy, said she was disappointed that Skakel won't stay in prison until either the conviction is reinstated or a new trial is held.
"I wasn’t completely destroyed, but I wish it would have not happened," she said outside court.
Skakel's release was the latest twist in a case that ran cold for nearly a quarter of a century — until a one-judge grand jury found probable cause for Skakel's arrest after hearing from dozens of witnesses.
Two years later, Skakel was convicted of murder by a jury that heard from several acquaintances from his past who claimed he had confessed to them many years earlier.
"I'm going to get away with murder because I'm a Kennedy," he boasted, according to pre-trial testimony from an ex-classmate, who died of a heroin overdose before the trial began.
Sentenced to 20 years to life, Skakel launched a blitz of back-to-back appeals, even taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.
Court after court rejected his bids for a new trial or a reduced sentence. But the streak of denials ended last month when an appellate judge agreed with Skakel's latest argument — that his conviction should be tossed because his defense lawyer was incompetent.
Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Bishop highlighted a string of errors by the limelight-loving lawyer, Mickey Sherman: he didn't challenge a juror with ties to the police; he failed to present a potential alibi witness; he didn't try to find witnesses who could have refuted testimony that Skakel had confessed years before; and he delivered a "disjointed" closing argument.
The judge also blasted Sherman for his decision not to focus more attention on Skakel's older brother Thomas — who said he had a sexual encounter with Moxley the night she was slain and was an early suspect — as the possible killer.
"The defense of a serious felony prosecution requires attention to detail, an energetic investigation and a coherent plan of defense capably executed," Bishop wrote in a 136-page ruling.
"Trial counsel's failures in each of these areas of representation were significant and, ultimately, fatal to a constitutionally adequate defense."
Moxley's brother John told reporters it seems like a killer was being let go on a "technicality." He noted that the thrust of Bishop's ruling was that Thomas Skakel — who has long denied any involvement — should have been painted as the most likely suspect.
"It's difficult to fathom how there could be any victory in this," he said.
Although he is not a Kennedy by blood — his father, Rushton Skakel, is the brother of Ethel Kennedy — Michael Skakel has received support from the storied political clan, most prominently Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
"Michael Skakel is innocent," he said last month.
"His one crime was that he had a very, very poor representation.”