John Gotti Trial: 1992

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John Gotti Trial: 1992

Defendant: John Gotti
Crimes Charged: Racketeering; racketeering conspiracy; murder; Illegal gambling; obstruction of justice; and conspiracies to murder, bribe a detective, obstruct justice, commit loan sharking, and commit tax fraud
Chief Defense Lawyer: Albert J. Krieger
Chief Prosecutors: John Gleeson and Andrew J. Maloney
Judge: I. Leo Glasser
Place: Brooklyn, New York
Dates of Trial: January 21-April 2, 1992
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life imprisonment without parole and $250,000 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: Fear, bribery, flawed prosecutions, and his lawyers' obstreperous courtroom behavior helped outspoken mob boss John Gotti avoid prison three times before he was successfully convicted of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

When John Gotti was indicted along with members of the Gambino organized crime "family" in New York in March 1985, law enforcement officials considered him to be a small-time hoodlum who had served short sentences for hijacking and attempted manslaughter. Everything changed December 16, 1985, when Gambino crime family leader Paul Castellano and "underboss" Thomas Bilotti were shot to death outside a midtown Manhattan restaurant.

Leadership of the powerful Gambino organization seemed to shift swiftly to Gotti. Law officers speculated that the new mob boss or "don" had murdered his predecessor before Castellano could have Gotti killed for violating a Gambino family prohibition against narcotics dealing. Gotti's violent celebrity grew quickly. Shortly after Castellano's murder, a terrified refrigerator mechanic who had accused Gotti of assaulting him in a parking dispute lost his memory in court.

Yet Gotti still faced trial for violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, popularly known as the RICO statute. Under the 1970 law, anyone found guilty of two felonies listed in a RICO indictment was considered to be engaged in a pattern of criminal activity and thus open to conviction for violating the RICO law itself. Federal prosecutors began using the statute against organized crime in the 1980's with considerable success.

The most serious charges in the 1985 Gambino RICO indictment died with Castellano and terminally ill Mafia boss Aniello Dellacroce, leaving Gotti to face lesser charges that had little to do with his sudden eminence as a mob boss. The government's case also was hampered by a bitter jurisdictional dispute between several state and federal law enforcement agencies. Each was building its own case against Gotti. None wanted to share witnesses or information for fear of jeopardizing its own chances for a successful conviction.

Gotti Eludes Conviction

Gotti's RICO trial began in August 1986. The prosecution case relied heavily on testimony by convicted felons. All were admitted liars who agreed under defense crossexamination that they hoped their testimony was buying them shorter sentences. One informer falsely denied ever working for the FBI. Another openly perjured himself, accusing the prosecution of offering him drugs in prison in return for testimony. After a long and acrimonious trial in which the defense repeatedly fired crude personal insults at the prosecutors and outshouted the judge's orders, Gotti was acquitted in March 1987.

Federal prosecutors immediately announced that Gotti would be indicted for a different set of racketeering crimes. When Gotti next appeared in court in January 1990, however, he faced assault and conspiracy charges in the wounding of John O'Connor, an officer of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. The corrupt union officer had ordered a Manhattan restaurant wrecked for resisting his bribery demands, unaware that the restaurant had ties to the Gambino crime family. Gotti was accused of ordering O'Connor shot in retaliation. If convicted, Gotti faced a sentence of 15 years to life as a thriceconvicted, "persistent felony offender."

Witnesses Weaken Prosecution

The main witness for the prosecution was James McElroy, a former "enforcer" for the Westies, a violent gang based in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan. McElroy claimed that the Westies had done the shooting as a favor to Gotti, who wanted O'Connor "whacked," or killed. Gotti's combative lawyer Bruce Cutler argued that the Westies' leader was an admitted perjurer and murderer, "a lying bum" trying to bargain his way out of a 60-year prison sentence for racketeering.

Secret tapes which purportedly showed Gotti's desire for revenge were imperfect. Cutler admitted that they reflected Gotti's involvement in Gambino family business, but he argued that his client's promise to "bust "m up" referred to reorganizing Gambino "crews" and was not a description of what he wanted done to O'Connor. The issue was further confused when state and federal prosecutors gave jurors differing transcripts of the same secretly taped conversation between two Westies. The star defense witness was the victim himself, John O'Connor, who denied that he could identify his assailants.

Gotti's supporters and neighbors celebrated with a fireworks display at the news of his third acquittal. Media pundits transformed the stylishly dressed "Dapper Don" into "The Teflon Don," a criminal to whom charges would not stick. "He is a murderer, not a folk hero," replied U.S. Attorney Andrew J. Maloney, who handed down the long-awaited new set of RICO charges in December 1990. Gotti and his top associates Frank Locasio and Salvatore Gravano were arrested and held without bail for multiple felonies ranging from murder to tax evasion.

Tide Changes for Prosecutors

Before testimony began, federal prosecutors succeeded in having Gotti's loud but effective lawyer Bruce Cutler barred from the trial. Judge I. Leo Glasser agreed that secret tapes showed that Cutler and two other attorneys had acted as "house counsels" for the Gambino crime organization. Since playing the tapes would result in the lawyers having to testify about matters the prosecution intended to introduce as evidence, the enraged Cutler was disqualified from working on the case.

Rumors of jury tampering in Gotti's previous trials also helped prosecutors convince the judge that the jury should remain anonymous and be sequestered throughout the trial. But the hardest blow of all came in the announcement that "Sammy Bull" Gravano, Gotti's "underboss," or second In command, would plead guilty and testify as a government witness.

When the trial began in Brooklyn, New York on January 21, 1992, Gotti's new lawyer, Albert J. Kreiger, opened the defense by stating that his client's only crime was the lack of a formal education. Krieger wasted no time in accusing the admitted murderer Gravano of being the rightful object of the prosecution's attention.

Unruffled government prosecutors had learned from past mistakes. "This is not a complex case," Maloney told the jury. "These defendants will tell you in their own words what it's about." Prosecutors played hours of secretly taped conversations in which Gotti spoke of murders and other crimes. "Anytime you got a partner who don't agree with us," Gotti told Locasio on one tape, "we kill him."

The second source of strength in the government's case was Gravano, who admitted his role in 19 murders, including 10 authorized by Gotti. The former underboss described how he and Gotti waited in a nearby car while Castellano and Bilotti were shot and then drove slowly past the bloody scene. Gravano added that a taped conversation in which Gotti falsely disavowed any part in Castellano's slaying was performed for the benefit of eavesdropping "bugs."

The defense attacked Gravano's description of the Castellano murder and characterized him as "a rat" who was willing to implicate others falsely to obtain a lighter sentence for his own violent crimes. Gravano admitted his hopes for leniency, but his testimony remained unshaken. Prosecutors also submitted evidence that Gotti had bribed a police detective for information and had failed to file income tax returns for six years during which he claimed to work as a plumbing company salesman.

The sole defense witness was a tax lawyer who had advised Gotti to exercise a "legitimate privilege of silence" by not filing returns while under indictment. As Judge Glasser ruled that appearances by all five other defense witnesses would be inappropriate for various legal reasons, Gotti's former cheery bluster eroded completely. He bickered openly with the judge, who threatened to have him removed from court.

In his summation, defense attorney Krieger accused the government of victimizing his client with a case manufactured from Gravano's lies. Prosecutor John Gleeson replied, "these defendants ranted and raved about Salvatore Gravano because he is their nightmare."

The jury agreed. On April 2, 1992, after only 13 hours of deliberations, Gotti was found guilty on all counts. Locasio was convicted of all charges, except one count of illegal gambling. Both career criminals were sentenced June 23 to life in prison without parole. Gotti's supporters protested the sentence by fighting with police and overturning cars in the streets outside the Brooklyn courthouse. Seven protesters were arrested on felony riot charges.

As Gotti was taken to a federal prison to spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement, his former confidante "Sammy Bull" Gravano continued to testify about the Gambino organization's hidden financial assets. Under the seizure provisions of the RICO statute, the FBI moved to confiscate ill-gotten properties owned by Gotti and the nation's largest Mafia family.

Prosecutor Gleeson's courtroom summation seemed to linger as the last word. The attorney who had faced Gotti's sarcastic jibes and hateful stares during both RICO trials told the jury that there were two ways to convict mobsters: "One, catch them talking about their crimes. Figure out a way to find those secret meetings and record them. There's one other way. Get one of them to come in and tell you about the crimes. We did both."

Nevertheless, others were convinced that Gotti tried to retain a surrogate hold on his criminal leadership by designating his son, John A Gotti, as acting boss of the Gambino family. The celebrity status once enjoyed by "the Dapper Don" shone less attractively on his son, however, who was dogged by the media and criminal investigators. New York organized crime families were said to be intensely displeased with Gotti's decision to literally keep his business in the family.

With Gotti imprisoned, federal authorities intensified efforts to dismantle the Gambino organization. The Ravenite Social Club, the notorious headquarters in Manhattan's Little Italy district from which Gotti and his cronies had proudly held court, was confiscated by the government and sold to real estate developers. Waves of arrests and plea bargains in New York and Florida dismantled the alleged command structure of the Gambino mob.

One of the arrests had far-reaching consequences. A 1994 gambling raid in the Bronx mushroomed into a federal massive racketeering indictment against John Gotti, Jr. and 37 other reputed Gambino family associates, who were arrested on January 21, 1998. While his codefendants accepted guilty pleas to avoid testifying and to reduce possible sentences, Gotti Jr. remained in jail for months as his relatives and friends scrambled to accumulate enough money to cover his $10 million bail.

The elder Gotti was furious. He railed to his daughter Victoria that her brother was an "imbecile" for leaving incriminating evidence within reach of investigators and surrounding himself with incompetents. Gotti's tirades in the prison visiting area were videotaped by investigators, who offered them as evidence that "Junior" was deeply involved in the Gambino criminal operation and thus undeserving of bail.

Media reports that Gotti Jr. was ready to strike a plea bargain with the government began to surface, mingling with rumors of his incarcerated father's anger over such a possible move. In the midst of the bedlam, the younger Gotti protested that the government's freezing of his assets made it impossible for him to earn a living or pay his family's enormous security bills. At one point the exasperated defendant asked the judge to send him back to jail to save money.

By April 1999, the pressure was too much for John Gotti, Jr. As his trial for racketeering was about to begin, he pleaded guilty to end what he characterized as government harassment. He hoped to salvage a life with his wife and young children from a devastating amount of potential jail time. Had Gotti gambled unsuccessfully on an acquittal at trial, he might have faced 20 years imprisonment. Instead he pleaded guilty to six charges, including loan sharking, bribery, mail fraud, gambling, tax evasion, and conspiracy to commit extortion.

On September 3, 1999, John Gotti, Jr. was sentenced to almost six and a half years in prison, 10 months less than the maximum requested by prosecutors. The sentence also included enormous forfeitures of money and real estate that Gotti was unable to prove were not obtained by noncriminal means. It was another bitter loss for the Gotti family. As law enforcement agencies continued to attack the Gambino organization, however, it would not be the last time relatives of the once-feared mob boss would face a judge.

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Chen, David. "Younger Gotti Is Sentenced to Six Years." New York Times (September 4, 1999): Bl.

Cummings, John and Ernest Volkman. Goombata: The Improbable Rise of John Gotti and His Gang. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1990.

Dannen, Frederic. "The Untouchable? How the FBI Sabotaged Competing Prosecution Teams In the Race to Nail Mob Boss John Gotti. Vanity Fair (January 1992): 26-44.

Fisher, Ian. "Defending the Mob: A User's Guide." New York Times (March 26, 1992): Bl, B5.

Goldberg, Jeffrey. "The Godfather Jr." New York Times Magazine (January 31, 1999): 25

McFadden, Robert D. "For Gotti Prosecutors, Hard Work Pays off With Conviction." New York Times (April 3, 1992): Al, B3.

Mustain, Gene and Jerry Capeci. Mob Star: The Story of John Gotti. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988.

Raab, Selwyn. "A Weakness in the Gotti Case." New York Times (March 14, 1987): Al.

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John Gotti Trial: 1992

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