By Richard Weizel
MILFORD, Connecticut (Reuters) - Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel, who has spent the past 11 years in prison for the 1975 murder of a teenage neighbor in Greenwich, Connecticut, is a step closer to being released on bail while awaiting a new trial.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Bishop, who two weeks ago overturned Skakel's 2002 murder conviction for bludgeoning to death Martha Moxley with a golf club, decided Wednesday to allow the 53-year-old nephew of slain U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy to make a case for his bail release.
Bishop said, however, the request had to be made in the criminal court that initially convicted him, a blow to Skakel's defense, which had hoped Bishop would set bail immediately at Wednesday's hearing.
Bishop's decision to lift the stay that had prevented Skakel from seeking bail earlier will take effect after 10 days to allow for challenges from prosecutors, who are already appealing Bishop's decision to overturn the conviction.
Bishop last month issued his 135-page decision overturning the conviction, saying Skakel had an inadequate defense at his trial and criticizing Skakel's former lawyer, Michael Sherman, for his "glaring ineffectiveness."
Skakel and Moxley were both 15 when she was beaten to death with a golf club and her body found on her parents' lawn. Skakel, who has maintained his innocence, was arrested in 2000 and was unsuccessful in his bid to be tried as a juvenile.
He appeared relaxed in court on Wednesday, smiling often and waving back to friends and relatives. He has served about half of a 20-years-to-life sentence.
Skakel's attorney Hubert Santos said during the hearing that Bishop's decision not to immediately set bail could cause the process to free Skakel to "drag on for an excessive period of time." Santos had argued in court papers that keeping Skakel behind bars violates his client's constitutional rights.
"A bond determination should be made by viewing the petitioner as an innocent defendant awaiting a possible re-trial and not as a guilty defendant," Santos said in court papers. He said his client is not a flight risk.
Prosecutors, however, have contended the judge cannot even consider granting bail while his decision to overturn Skakel's conviction and set a new trial is being appealed.
"In my 30 years as a prosecutor I have rarely seen evidence that includes multiple confessions by the defendant," Susan Gill, assistant state's attorney told the judge.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Richard Chang)