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Kennedy Cousin Murder Conviction Overturned; U.S.-Saudi Rift?

Aired October 23, 2013 - 18:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're getting some breaking news here into the SITUATION ROOM.

The murder conviction of a Kennedy family cousin has now been thrown out and a new trial has been ordered. Michael Skakel was found guilty of the 1975 death of a Greenwich, Connecticut, teenager named Martha Moxley. In a long and stunning decision today, though, the state judge ruled that Skakel's original trial lawyers failed to effectively represent him.

Skakel is about halfway through his prison sentence of 20 years to life. He's the nephew of Robert Kennedy's widow Ethel.

Let's go to CNN's Ashleigh Banfield. She's getting more information. She's joining us on the phone.

What else are you learning, Ashleigh?

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via phone): So, Wolf, I'm in Connecticut and I'll tell you, this is one of the most famous cases in this area if not the entire Eastern Seaboard.

Michael Skakel has been battling this conviction for over a decade. He has tried everything to get this conviction thrown out and today it finally happened. His appellate lawyer argued that his original defense wasn't good enough. And a judge agreed. In fact, it was a pretty scathing ruling that the judge just handed down here in Connecticut.

"As a consequence of trial counsel's failures as stated earlier in this decision, the state procured a judgment of conviction that lacks reliability. Although defense counsel's errors of judgment and execution are not the fault of the state, a defendant's constitutional right to adequate representation cannot be overshadowed by the inconvenience and financial and emotional cost of a new trial."

What this means, Wolf, is that without question there will be an effort to appeal this decision. Here's where it's complicated. If the prosecutors that will be appealing this, because the prosecutors are the ones who ultimately ended up defending the defense lawyer, if that makes sense. But it really comes down to is if there's a new trial in 18 monies to two years, which would be probably a legitimate time frame, they have got to over all of this evidence that is now 40 years old, and they have got to dig up a lot of these witnesses. That is always very complicating. He also is likely to apply for (INAUDIBLE) Wolf, as early as this Thursday. Michael Skakel could walk out of a Connecticut prison, having been serving 10, roughly 10 -- he's about halfway through a 20 to life sentence, but he could walk out a free man effectively awaiting a new trial.

But I guarantee you this. Prosecutors would never let this go untried. This is one of those cases they will retry this case. If they don't, I will eat my words, but it's just so high-profile.

BLITZER: Is he going to be released from prison while they await a new trial or will he remain in prison awaiting a new trial?

BANFIELD: That's always up to the judge. Bond is not punishment. Bond is just to make sure you're around to be retried.

I think there's a big case to be made that he's released. Is he a danger to the community? He's already been serving a decade in prison, he's well known, he's famous in his own right at this time. I have seen this happen before. I saw Phil Spector out on bail on a first degree murder charge for years living at home, so anything can happen.

But this is just -- it can't be overstated however significant this is, after so many failures at trying to overturn this conviction that these appellate lawyers were able to secure this. But, listen, retrying both cases is not for the faint of heart. It's difficult. Evidence can be forgotten. Witnesses can die, lots of things can erode. Evidence could go missing. It's a very difficult proposition and it wasn't an easy case to begin with.

BLITZER: Let me bring Jeffrey Toobin to this, our senior legal analyst.

Jeffrey, you covered that trial a long time ago. What, he's serving 20 years to life. He's been in prison now for 10 years. I assume he would have been eligible for parole at some point. Give us your analysis of what's likely to happen right now.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: First, Wolf, if I can just say how absolutely stunning this decision is.

Remember, Michael Skakel was represented by Mickey Sherman, who is a very well-known lawyer in Connecticut, a frequent guest on CNN for a significant period of time. I sat through that trial. I didn't think Mickey Sherman did a particularly good job.

But it is normally very, very difficult to have a conviction overturned on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel. That he won on that claim is completely astonishing to me, and given all the avenues he had for appeal, this was one that I thought was one of the weakest. So I am certain that the prosecutors here will appeal this decision to the Connecticut -- through the appellate process, so I'm not sure that the last word has been said on the case.

BLITZER: So what you're saying is there may not be a new trial if there's a different decision by a higher court?

TOOBIN: Correct.

But in the meantime, I do think he is very likely to get out on bail. You know, the two issues, you know, that come up with bail is are you a danger to the community? Are you likely to flee? I think his lawyers will be able to make a good case that Michael Skakel is a good bail risk.

So I think at least in the meantime while this legal process goes forward, Michael Skakel is very likely to be released on bail.

BLITZER: Is he technically innocent right now?

TOOBIN: Well, he is now presumed innocent. He has been ordered to have a new trial.

So he is now in the position of someone who has been charged, but who has not yet been convicted. So he is now in the position of someone who is awaiting trial. It is such a shocking development, because this case was brilliantly litigated by the prosecutors in this case, led by a prosecutor named Jonathan Benedict. It was a very old case 10, 11 years ago.

Now it is going to be very difficult to try him again, so that's why the prosecutors, I think, are going to do everything in their power to get this conviction reinstated without having to go back to court.

BLITZER: Ashleigh, remind our viewers what he was convicted of doing to this young woman, Martha Moxley.

BANFIELD: Well, Martha Moxley was a friend and neighbor. Back on I think it was October 30, 1975, it was a Halloween party. He and his brother had been part of this Halloween party.

It was really Michael's brother Thomas who had I believe the last to be seen with Martha Moxley. In any case, the next day, Martha Moxley was dead. Her body was found in her family's backyard, either beneath or close to a tree. Her pants and her underwear had been pulled down, but she hadn't been sexually assaulted.

What was found near her body was -- whether it was a broken or bits and pieces of a golf club. That was determined to be a weapon, because the cause of death was bludgeoning, and stabbing with a golf club, and it happened to be a golf club they could trace back to Michael Skakel's home.

There's a lot of conflicting evidence in the case, but there were a couple students who had testified they overheard Michael confessing. Let's not forget, this is 40 years ago, and when Jeffrey said that even 11 years ago, it was a very old case, it really was.

So, again you can't understate how significant it is to look at that evidence from 10 years ago that convicted him. Try and reinstate it again now a decade ago from a crime from four decades ago, it's going to be tough. It's going to be very tough. Over the years, like Jeffrey said, some of those appeals sounded extraordinarily legitimate, very powerful, and to have an ineffective assistance of counsel works, it's rare.

I personally in decades of covering courts have only covered one prominent case of this working. This would be the second.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, as you say, this is pretty extraordinary. How unusual is it for a judge to make a decision that bad lawyers resulted in this conviction?

TOOBIN: Wolf, I cannot overestimate how unusual this is. You know, under Supreme Court precedent, the lawyer doesn't have to do a bad job.

What the Supreme Court has said is it has to be the equivalent of having no lawyer at all. That's what it takes to get a conviction overturned on the basis of ineffective assistance. It almost never happens.

I have never frankly heard of it happening with a high-profile lawyer like Mickey Sherman being involved. As I say, I don't think Mickey Sherman did the greatest job in the world, and I want to study this very long 136-page opinion more carefully, but the idea that this was constitutionally defective legal assistance strikes me as very unlikely.

You know, just an illustration of how old this case is, it was really brought back to life by the work of Dominick Dunne, the "Vanity Fair" writer who covered this case so extensively. Dominick in the interim has now died. I would not be surprised if other people involved in this case have died. That's what happens when you try to try a case decades after the events in question.

BLITZER: The appellate judge in Connecticut, Thomas Bishop, he wrote this.

This is the key line. I will read it to our viewers: "Although defense counsel's errors of judgment and execution are not the fault of the state, a defendant's constitutional right to adequate representation cannot be overshadowed by the inconvenience and financial and emotional cost of a new trial."

That's the key sentence, Jeffrey, isn't it?

TOOBIN: It certainly is, and you can imagine the tremendous frustration of the prosecutors here, because they're not accused of doing anything wrong.

They're not accused of violating Michael Skakel's rights. They couldn't defenses the case as well as prosecuted, yet here they are put in the position of having to retry the case because of the incompetence alleged by the judge of Mickey Sherman. It is a maddening position for prosecutors to be in, to say nothing of Michael Skakel -- of Martha Moxley's family, who suffered for so many years with this case.

For them to have to relive this case because of the Mickey Sherman's incompetence is a really, really bitter pill.

BLITZER: Ashleigh, are we getting any reaction yet from the prosecutors, the current defense attorneys representing Michael Skakel?

BANFIELD: I have reached out to Mickey Sherman, someone I personally know well from my years in this business.

I have not heard back from him yet. I have not had any word from prosecutors yet, and, of course, courts are closed now. I just want to underscore something Jeff just said about how unusual it is to get an ineffective assistance of counsel overturned conviction.

The only other high-profile one I ever saw was because the defense attorney himself fell on the sword and admitted that he was ineffective in the case. It's a little hard to argue that. And that's the only other one I have seen.

So this is -- it's remarkable story, it's a remarkable sight by the man on your screen who has battled this for the better part of his adult life.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, before I wrap this up, give me a final thought.

TOOBIN: This will contribute to a certain degree of cynicism about the legal system.

Here you have a very wealthy defendant hiring a high-profile defense attorney who loses the case, and yet somehow he contrives to get the conviction overturned on the basis of the incompetence of that lawyer. That is something that is so unusual that I think people will have a rather cynical view of at least this example of the legal system in action.

BLITZER: The reason this case generated so much attention, Ashleigh, let's not kid ourselves, he's the nephew of Robert and Ethel Kennedy. How did that play into this trial?

BANFIELD: Clearly, it became a very high-profile trial because of this because of connection to Camelot.

And for those who can sort of go back the decades, Ethel Kennedy is Robert Kennedy's widow, and Michael Skakel is her nephew. So there is that connection. And they were prominent at the time of the trial. This was extraordinarily difficult considering this was a very wealthy neighborhood and the Moxleys were neighbors that didn't live far from the Skakels.

So clearly it had all of the evidence of a Dominick Dunne mystery, which is why Dominick Dunne's story ended up getting so much attention as well.

By the way, I can just tell you, Wolf, that I'm getting some of the early comments from the state attorney in Bridgeport, which is where this is being litigated. Someone by the name of John Smriga, who is the state attorney in Bridgeport, said that he does plan to appeal. He told reporters, and this is via the Associated Press, he has a plan to appeal this.

Remember I said -- Jeff outlined it perfectly -- the poor prosecutors in this case, they did a great job, they got a conviction, and here they are being punished, effectively, and they were the ones who took on the defense of the defense lawyer.

So the prosecutors defended the defense lawyer, and they would like to appeal the decision that was just made against the defense lawyer. So it's it's a little bit complicated to follow the bouncing ball. If they can have this thrown out and have the original conviction stand, then there wouldn't be any kind of new trial 18 months to two years down the road.

BLITZER: We will see what happens on appeal. This is going to a -- may go to a higher court. There may just be a new trial. We will see what happens.

Ashleigh, stand by. Jeffrey Toobin, stand by.

We will have more of the story coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. We will continue our coverage of this, plus all the day's other important news. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Sanjay Gupta is standing by. Jim Sciutto is standing by, but there's this breaking story we're following.

Ashleigh Banfield has been watching it together with all of us, the conviction of Michael Skakel overturned by an appellate court in Connecticut, a new trial ordered.

This is pretty dramatic news. This Kennedy cousin, the conviction, he's serving a 20 years to life sentence, Ashleigh, 10 years already in jail, but now there will be a new trial presumably.

BANFIELD: Presumably. I wouldn't even use the word presumably.

I would say don't think I have ever met a prosecutor who would turn his back or turn her back on a retrial based on how high-profile and how significant this case is. The appellate decision handed down by the judge in this case, Wolf, Judge Thomas Bishop, was 136 pages.

It is long and thick and full of details. I'm just plugging through it right now. But I can tell you at least a couple of the reasons that the judge determined that Michael Skakel's counsel was ineffective was because of an allegation Skakel made that his lawyer hadn't tracked down the appropriate witnesses and also that his lawyer perhaps had erred in selecting jurors, in fact, selected bad jurors.

And cases can be won or lost in jury selection, as we have seen over and over again. These are at least two of the critiques that Michael Skakel had of his attorney. The other thing is if you're talking about tracking down witnesses, it's been 40 years, four decades since the murder of Martha Moxley. And in a retrial two years from now, if it was difficult to track down witnesses or perhaps the best job wasn't done back then, it's going to be really hard to find those witnesses now, because whenever you have cases that are decades old, there are myriad chances that many witnesses are dead, many witnesses have failing memories or perhaps are too old to remember details from so long ago, evidence disappears and corrodes and sometimes isn't kept. It can just be misplaced.


BLITZER: We have got to wrap it up, Ashleigh. Stand by. We will continue our coverage obviously later, but there is other news we're following as well, but a dramatic development in the Michael Skakel case, a new trial ordered.

We will take a quick break.

When we come back, Dr. Sanjay Gupta is here with me. Lots to discuss.


BLITZER: Saudi Arabia's spy chief has reportedly promised a major shift in the country's relationship with the United States.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, reports.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It wasn't long ago that the Saudi king was lavishing President Obama with gifts, but now Saudi officials have only blistering criticism instead, blasting U.S. outreach to Iran and its failure to attack Syria.

PRINCE TURKI AL-FAISAL, FORMER SAUDI AMBASSADOR TO UNITED STATES: The current charade of international control over Bashar's chemical arsenal would be funny, if it were not so blatantly perfidious and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people.

SCIUTTO: When we asked U.S. officials about the Saudi tirade, they played it down, saying their private conversations have been more civil.

(on camera): You can bet that King Abdullah would not let this kind of commentary get out unless he approved it.

MARIE HARF, SPOKESWOMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: We work very closely with Prince Bandar, with Turki Al-Faisal, with the king and Saud al-Faisal and others. That's not going to change.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Still, the public comments exposed sharp disagreements on virtually every U.S. policy initiative in the region, nuclear talks with Iran, a diplomatic agreement to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, and the latest peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. Some critics call Saudi Arabia's outrage unacceptable, citing the costly investment of American blood and treasure to defend shared interests from the wars in Iraq Afghanistan to U.S. ships policing the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia's economic lifeline to the world.

ROBERT BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's American blood that is being spilled. We spent trillions of dollars on defending the Middle East, and now the Saudis are irritated because there's the possibility of rapprochement with Iran.


SCIUTTO: U.S. lawmakers and others are very nervous about the consequences of this, saying that if this rift grows, Wolf, it will damage both countries' interests.

BLITZER: It's a hugely important issue. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto.

Let's get to the other big story of the day, the continued fallout over Obamacare.

Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, spoke exclusively to the person right at the center of the storm, Kathleen Sebelius. Sanjay is here with us.

Let me play a little clip, Sanjay, from your excellent interview.



GUPTA: Do you know when he first knew that there was a problem?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Well, I think it became clear fairly early on, the first couple of days that...

GUPTA: So, not before that, though? Not before October 1? There was no concern at that point either in the White House or at HHS?

SEBELIUS: I think that we talked about having testing going forward.


BLITZER: There's a time, there's a deadline. Pressure is really enormous right now. They have to fix this if young people are going to sign up.

GUPTA: I think there's a psychological component to this, as well as a pragmatic one.

The psychological is something that has to do with people who are sort of sitting on the fence about this. They weren't sure, and this may have eroded some of their confidence in this. Also, this idea that, look, if it's been so cumbersome to sign up, can you really penalize people for not having done so? That was something that I really got at with the secretary, because there's this individual mandate that says you have to buy insurance or you get penalized.

But again if the process was so arduous, how will that play out? I think that that is a real concern.


BLITZER: Did you get the sense she might be open or the administration might be open to delaying that penalty?

GUPTA: I asked that question a few different ways.

She each time came back and said -- the first time, she said, look, I don't think that's the right question to be asking right now. At no point did she say that it was off the table completely. But she really was very dismissive of it.

As you know, Wolf, and we have talked about this before, it's very hard for a lot of this program to work without this individual mandate, because you're not going to get people coming into the system to help defray these costs to pay for it.

BLITZER: And now these contractors who will be testifying tomorrow before this House committee, they're saying there were some major flaws.

For example, you had to register and provide all this sensitive information just to do some window shopping, when it should have been the opposite. Window shop and then you can give them the information.

GUPTA: And this was done very close to the rollout. This is a problem, Wolf.

I asked her about this as well yesterday. She again dismissed this, but this idea that right before the rollout, within a few weeks before the rollout, they added a feature that said someone had to register before able to window shop. The concern is, and you will hear this from some of the congressional investigators, was this done to prevent comparison shopping?

Was it done to mask premiums as well? You're going to hear about that.

BLITZER: You're going to have much more on "AC360" at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. We will be watching, Sanjay.

GUPTA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you so much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.