(Reuters) - A divided Connecticut Supreme Court on Friday reinstated the 2002 murder conviction of Michael Skakel, a relative of the Kennedy family, in the 1975 murder of his neighbour Martha Moxley at her Greenwich home.
By a 4-3 vote, the court rejected a October 2013 ruling by a lower court judge that Skakel's trial lawyer did not provide an adequate defence, and that the defendant should be retried.
"We conclude that the petitioner's trial counsel rendered constitutionally adequate representation," Justice Peter Zarella wrote for the majority.
Friday's decision sets the stage for Skakel's return to prison to complete his sentence of 20 years to life. He had served 11 years before being freed on bail in November 2013.
Hubert Santos, a lawyer for Skakel who argued that the 2013 ruling was correct, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. He could ask the court to reconsider the decision or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Skakel, 56, is a cousin of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and nephew of Ethel Kennedy, widow of U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
His case has long been among the more celebrated U.S. criminal cases because of the Kennedy link and the focus on Greenwich, one of New York City's wealthiest suburbs.
Moxley was found bludgeoned to death with a golf club, later traced to a set owned by Skakel's mother, in the yard of her family's 26-room estate on Oct. 31, 1975, when she and Skakel were 15 years old.
The case remained unsolved for more than two decades, but interest grew after former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman, known for his role in the O.J. Simpson murder case, implicated Skakel in his 1998 book "Murder In Greenwich."
A grand jury was convened that year, and Skakel surrendered in January 2000 after an arrest warrant was issued.
Police originally looked at Skakel and his brother Thomas as suspects, along with a tutor.
The brothers had been romantically interested in Moxley, and Michael Skakel was charged after three witnesses testified that he had confessed to the murder.
But Skakel was freed after state Superior Court Judge Thomas Bishop in 2013 faulted the "glaring ineffectiveness" of his trial lawyer Mickey Sherman.
Among other things, Bishop cited Sherman's failure to properly offer another explanation for the murder or present a key alibi witness, and his incoherent closing argument.
Santos argued that Sherman was more focused on winning fame than his client's freedom, and should have tried to show that Thomas Skakel might have committed the murder.
Zarella, however, found that Sherman lacked admissible evidence to link Thomas Skakel to Moxley's death, and could have reasonably chosen not to implicate him.
He also said Sherman's closing argument fell within "the broad range of permissible arguments" he could have made.
Justice Richard Palmer dissented, saying the majority shirked its responsibility to ensure Skakel got a proper defence by upholding a guilty verdict reached after a trial "literally riddled with highly prejudicial attorney incompetence."
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and David Ingram in New York; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and David Gregorio