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Michael Skakel's attorney: 'A great weight has been lifted'

Nov. 22, 2013 at 8:28 AM ET

Video: Hubert Santos, Michael Skakel’s lawyer, sits down with Matt Lauer, saying that his client is relieved to be free on bail and will take the stand if he faces another trial.

Michael Skakel spent 11 years in a maximum-security prison before becoming a free man on Thursday.

“He didn’t describe [his emotions], but you could see by his conduct that a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders,’’ Skakel's attorney, Hubert Santos, said on TODAY Friday. “The first thing he said to me when we posted the bond, his first remarks were ‘Thank God.’’’

Skakel, 53, was released on $1.2 million bond Thursday in the wake of last month's overturning of the 2002 verdict convicting him of murdering 15-year-old Connecticut schoolgirl Martha Moxley in 1975. In his appeal, Skakel, who is a Kennedy cousin, successfully argued that his trial lawyer did a poor job of representing him. 

In the event that Connecticut state prosecutors win an appeal of the latest ruling, Skakel could be be either retried or sent back to prison without a new trial. The state has not announced if it will retry the case if the decision is upheld. If a judge orders a retrial, Santos told Matt Lauer Friday, he is prepared to point the finger at other suspects — including Skakel’s own brother.

In a petition Santos filed while trying to get the verdict overturned, he said there is a chance that the murderer was Michael's brother Thomas Skakel, who was an early suspect and one of the last people seen with Moxley. Thomas was never charged and maintains his innocence. Santos indicated that if there is a retrial, he would offer evidence that Thomas or others could be responsible for the crime.

“Most certainly if there’s a retrial we not only would present that evidence [about Thomas] for the jury to consider, but we also would present evidence regarding other people who have been suspects over the years,’’ Santos told Lauer. “Remember, Michael was never a suspect until the 1990s.’’

That course of action would create the emotional dilemma of Skakel’s attorney presenting evidence against Skakel's own brother to try to win Skakel’s freedom.

“There’s no doubt about that, that it would be an emotional turmoil for Michael because he loves his brother, cares for his brother,’’ Santos said. “We’re not saying that his brother committed the crime. I asked Michael that question, and he said he does not believe that his brother committed the crime.”

If a retrial is ordered, Skakel is prepared to take the stand, according to Santos.

“He’s not worried, because he knows he did not commit the crime, did not murder Martha Moxley, so he would look forward to another trial where all of the evidence would be heard by the jury,’’ Santos said. 

Moxley was found beaten to death in her family’s yard on Halloween 1975, and police said the murder weapon was a golf club belonging to the Skakel family, who lived next door. Skakel was not indicted until nearly 25 years later, when a one-judge grand jury found probable cause for his arrest after hearing from dozens of witnesses. He was convicted of murder two years later and sentenced to 20 years to life. There were no fingerprints, no DNA and no eyewitnesses tying Skakel to the crime.

After the judge overturned the verdict last month, the prosecution noted that it was because Skakel’s prior attorney acted poorly in representing him, not because Skakel was declared innocent of the crime. The state still believes it has a strong case, but Santos disagrees.

“The judge who ordered the new trial said in a 136-page opinion that the case against Michael Skakel was weak, very weak, and so we anticipate that at a retrial the jury will finally hear all of the evidence,’’ Santos said. 

Video: Michael Skakel, a cousin of the Kennedy family who has been in prison for the 1976 murder of a 15-year-old-girl in Connecticut, is out on bail after a judge overturned the conviction. Now, Skakel faces a potentially long legal battle to clear his name.

Santos believes that if a retrial is ordered, it has to be held in a different location after the intense media scrutiny during the initial trial in 2002.

“What was not understood at the first trial was the enormous impact publicity had,’’ Santos said. “The book by Dominick Dunne, the book by Mark Fuhrman, and of course the great sympathy for Mrs. Moxley, which everyone shares. Consequently, if he’s going to get a fair trial, it’s not going to be in Fairfield County.”

Moxley’s parents were in the courtroom on Thursday when Skakel was freed to a smattering of applause.

“She’s a very brave woman, and she’s a very determined woman,’’ Santos said about Moxley’s mother, Dorothy. “She’s convinced that Michael committed the crime. You can have nothing but sympathy and admiration for her. She’s a very decent person. Can you imagine, you’re in the most wealthy area of the world in 1975, the most secure area, and your daughter is killed viciously in the driveway of her home? So it’s unimaginable how she has been able to deal with this all these years.”

“Our thoughts are that Judge Bishop’s decision will be overturned,’’ Martha’s father, John Moxley, told reporters on Thursday. “All of this has been heard in so many different courts, and it’s going back to some of the same courts.” 

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