Charles "Lucky" Luciano Trial: 1936
Charles "Lucky" Luciano Trial: 1936
Defendant: Charles "Lucky" Luciano
Crime Charged: Compulsory prostitution
Chief Defense Lawyers: Francis W.H. Adams and George Morton Levy
Chief Prosecutor: Thomas E. Dewey
Judge: Philip J. McCook
Dates of Trial: May 13-June 7, 1936
Sentence: 30 to 50 years imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: The "Lucky" Luciano case is a paradox: It proves that, no matter how much money a crime boss has made or how well his lawyers and henchmen have protected him, he can be convicted and sentenced to long imprisonment. But it also proves that where there's a will, there's a way to gain release, as Luciano ultimately did.
In 1935, Charles "Lucky" Luciano was the nation's number one crime boss. He had run the national crime syndicate—later famous for its disciplinary arm dubbed "Murder, Inc."—since its organization in 1931.
A New York grand jury, briefed on the extent of vice and racketeering, asked for appointment of a special prosecutor. Governor Herbert H. Lehman appointed Thomas E. Dewey, an ambitious former chief assistant U.S. attorney.
Dewey learned that "Lucky" Luciano (so nicknamed because he usually won craps games and had survived a severe beating and throat-slitting) had expanded his operations from extortion from bordellos to complete control over them. He was taking in more than $10 million annually, with 5,000 prostitutes on the nationwide payroll.
Dewey's staff interviewed whores, pimps, loan sharks, and strong-arm men. Word reached Luciano: Many had talked. He disappeared. Dewey proclaimed him "Public Enemy Number One." The grand jury indicted Luciano on 90 counts of compulsory prostitution (later reduced to 62).
Luciano was found in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where organized crime maintained a well-protected sanctuary. He was extradited only after Dewey pictured the Arkansas governor as a protector of gangsters and 20 Arkansas Rangers removed Luciano from the protection of the Hot Springs sheriff.
"I'm Gonna Organize the Cathouses Like the A&P"
The special blue-ribbon jury heard 68 witnesses. Some 40 were prostitutes or madams who had moved up in the ranks. One, Cokey Flo Brown, testified about meetings where Luciano presided. "I'm gonna organize the cathouses like the A&P," he had told her. "We could syndicate the places on a large scale same as a chain store system."
Cokey Flo also testified that strong-arm methods had brought madams and pimps into line. "First you got to step on them," she quoted Luciano as saying. "Talking won't do no good. You got to put the screws on."
Against his lawyers' advice, Luciano insisted on taking the witness stand to deny all charges and deny knowing any of the witnesses. For four hours, Dewey pummeled him with questions, proving that he was lying in answer after answer.
Dewey's seven-hour summation described Luciano's testimony as:
… a shocking, disgusting display of sanctimonious perjury—at the end of which I am sure not one of you had a doubt that before you stood not a gambler, not a bookmaker, but the greatest gangster in America.
The jury agreed: guilty on all counts. Judge Philip J. McCook's sentence: 30 to 50 years—the longest ever for compulsory prostitution. On June 18, 1936, Luciano went to New York State's maximum-security prison at Dannemora.
Dewey later admitted that he had been able to convict Luciano only for "a minor racket," while:
It is my understanding that top-ranking defendants in this case have absorbed control of the narcotics, policy, loan-shark and Italian lottery syndicates, the receipt of stolen goods and certain industrial rackets.
Aided the War Effort
World War II freed Luciano. In 1942, U.S. Navy officers, frustrated by unstable labor conditions and sabotage on the New York waterfront, visited Luciano. He ordered cooperation and gained a private cell. A year later, the Navy, planning the invasion of Sicily, asked him to enlist the help of the island's natives. A deal was struck. After the war, with the Navy citing Luciano's aid in shortening the war in Sicily and Italy and with by then-Governor Dewey's approval, he was paroled to his birthplace in Sicily.
Luciano settled in Naples, barred from Rome by the Italian government. He lived there, except for an illegal sojourn in Cuba (where he ordered the death of his syndicate associate, "Bugsy" Siegel), until he died of a heart attack in 1962.
—Bernard Ryan, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Fox, Stephen. Blood and Power. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1989.
Godwin, John. Murder USA. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.
Gosch, Martin A. and Richard Hammer. The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1974.
Nash, Jay Robert. Almanac of IVorld Crime. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981.
—. Encyclopedia of World Crime. Wilmette, Ill.: CrimeBooks, 1990.