Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A High Cost, to Little Effect, for a Window Into the Mob

One day, after a bad couple of hours in court, the mob boss Joseph C. Massino turned to the marshals escorting him to a cell.
“I would like to see the F.B.I. agents or the prosecutors,” Mr. Massino announced. It was purely logical. A jury had just pronounced him guilty of seven murders that would surely put him behind bars for life. On the horizon was a trial for yet another murder, which could have come with a death penalty if he were found guilty.
That was nearly seven years ago, and he has not been seen in public since. He reappeared on Tuesday, making a kind of history as the first official mob boss to testify for the prosecution.
The fall of the mob is familiar ground, but it should not pass without notice that like many of us, Mr. Massino appeared to be a man who could appreciate the mercy of an elastic waistband. That might explain the workout gear he wore to court. It is a long time since John Gotti preened in his bespoke suits and silk ties.
Still, clothes do not make the mobster. In his testimony, Mr. Massino displayed the vision needed to run a large organization.
Reflecting on the core competencies of the soldiers in his crew, Mr. Massino noted that different skills were involved in killing people than in making money at rackets. Not everyone was qualified to do both, and that was O.K. with him.
“It takes all kinds of meat to make a good sauce,” he explained.
He issued a decree in 2000 that members of his crime family no longer had to appear at the weddings, wakes and funerals of everyone they knew. He also tried to put an end to the use of social clubs. One F.B.I. agent could watch 50 of his men coming and going from a club; if they just scattered, it would take 50 agents to keep track of 50 mobsters.
“Stay between the raindrops,” Mr. Massino said, explaining his thinking. “Less exposure.”
His comments gave the moment some gravity, but did not rescue the case from a screaming absurdity. The man on trial, Vincent Basciano, is already serving a life sentence without parole and now is accused of murdering a mob associate. Win or lose, when this trial is over, he will be sent to the federal super-maximum security prison in Colorado, under what are said to be the toughest conditions in the country.
Even so, this trial could end up costing $10 million, in large part because the Justice Department will ask for the death penalty if Mr. Basciano is convicted. That has sent the price tag soaring.
Before one syllable was heard from the first witness, the judge had approved payments for Mr. Basciano’s defense approaching $4 million; it is likely that similar costs could be attributed to the team of prosecutors. Now that testimony has begun, his publicly paid defense lawyers, plus investigators, were in court on Tuesday; so were four assistant United States attorneys, along with two F.B.I. agents. In addition to the legal costs, there are administrative expenses in running a trial: 1,000 potential jurors were screened for the case; federal marshals are protecting the turncoat mob boss under tight security; and the jurors hearing the case are anonymous and are being provided with protection and escorts to their homes.
A year ago, the judge overseeing the trial, Nicholas G. Garaufis of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, wrote to the United States attorney general and said that the Justice Department should reconsider the death penalty. While Mr. Basicano faced grave charges, the judge wrote, he already had been convicted of murder.
“Basciano is already sentenced to life imprisonment,” Judge Garaufis wrote. “He is designated to serve his sentence under extremely restrictive conditions in one of the nation’s most secure penal institutions.”
At one point, officials said Mr. Basciano was said to be plotting the killing of a prosecutor, as well as Judge Garaufis. But those charges have been dropped, at least for the time being.
It is Mr. Basciano’s serial murders that warrant the death penalty, federal authorities say. There is also the matter of presenting a prize witness, Mr. Massino, who has already been the source of other convictions, even without once appearing in court: some mobsters have pleaded guilty when they realized that he would be part of the prosecution’s case.
As for Mr. Massino, his motivation for testifying is easy to understand. He himself no longer faces the death penalty, but does have multiple life sentences ahead of him. By cooperating, he may actually emerge from prison in something other than a body bag. As he testified on Tuesday, “I’m hoping to see light at the end of the tunnel.”



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