The jury in the racketeering trial of mob boss Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi delivered a split verdict today leaving courtroom observers and attorneys scrambling to make sense of a mixed bag of predominantly not guilty and undecided pronouncements.
Three defendants were convicted of racketeering conspiracy, the most serious charge in the 52-count indictment, by the jury which deliberated a staggering 21 days before declaring that it could go no further.
One defendant was acquitted and the jury announced that it was hopelessly deadlocked on the conspiracy charge against Ligambi and two others.
The only other guilty verdicts were two counts of loansharking conspiracy against Anthony Staino, a top Ligambi associate.
“The government’s case was gutted,” said Edwin Jacobs Jr., Ligambi’s lawyer. “We won 90 percent of the counts. The government blew this case out of all sensible proportion.”
The government has not decided if it will retry the counts on which the jury deadlocked. Judge Eduardo Robreno formally declared a mistrial on those counts at the end of a roller coaster day in court that began with the jury announcing that it had reached partial verdicts in the case but deadlocked on others. Robreno urged the panel to continue, but by mid-afternoon the jury declared it was deadlocked and unable to go any further.
The verdicts were read to a packed courtroom at around 3:45 p.m. Mob underboss Joseph “Mousie” Massimino, mob soldier Damion Canalichio and mob associate Gary Battaglini were found guilty of the racketeering conspiracy charge.
The jury said it was “undecided” on similar charges against Ligambi, his nephew George Borgesi and Staino. Staino was found guilty of loansharking charges tied to an alleged $30,000 he lent to an undercover FBI agent posing as a corrupt financial consultant. Staino has insisted the money he gave the man he knew as “Dino” was an investment, not a loan.
Mobster Joseph “Scoops” Licata was found not guilty of racketeering conspiracy. Licata, 71, faced no other charges and was released later in the day.
The status of the other defendants could be determined at new bail hearings set for tomorrow, Ligambi, 73, and Borgesi, 49, held without bail since their arrests in May 2011, are expected to reapply for bail while the government decides whether to retry on the deadlocked charges on which the jury could not decide.
“I’m pleased with the result for my client,” said Christopher Warren, Licata’s lawyer who called the verdicts tantamount to a “wholesale acquittal.”In fact, the jury delivered not guilty verdicts on 45 of 50 counts tied to allegations of gambling, loansharking and extortion and hung of 11 others.
Borgesi, who was finishing a 14-year sentence for an earlier racketeering conviction when he was indicted in this case, was found not guilty on 13 of the 14 counts he faced with the jury hung only on the racketeering conspiracy charge. The jury decision seemed to be a repudiation of mob informant Louis “Bent Finger Lou” Monacello, the key witness against Borgesi.
“The jury is the last bulwark against government over-reaching,” said Paul Hetznecker, Borgesi’s attorney. Throughout the 10-week trial and in his closing argumens, Hetznecker offered a spirited and pointed defense built around that theme.
Hetznecker said he will seek bail for his client and also continued to argue that, in his client’s case at least, the not guilty verdicts appeared to undermine and invalidate the racketeering conspiracy charge which is technically still pending.
The jury fund Ligambi not guilty of five charges tied to gambling, loansharking and fraud and was hung on three others, two tied the operation of a video poke machine business and one count of witness tampering.
Ligambi is the fifth Philadelphia mob boss in the past 25 years to face racketeering charges. The others have been jailed and convicted. Two of those mob leaders, Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo and John Stanfa, remain in prison. Another, Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, was released last year after serving a 14-year sentence. The fifth mob boss, Ralph Natale, became a cooperating witness and pleaded guilty to racketeering charges tied to murder, extortion and drug dealing. He also was sentenced to 14 years in prison and was recently released.
With Ligambi’s status still uncertain, mob watchers had been speculating on a potential power vacuum and who might fill it. One candidate is Merlino, 50, who has been living in Florida since his release. He has indicated to friends and associates, however, that he has no desire to return to South Philadelphia.
Several top Merlino associates who were convicted with him are also free and have been identified by law enforcement authorities as still active in the underworld. That group includes mob leaders Steven Mazzone and John Ciancaglini. But both have maintained a low profile, opting according to several sources, to concentrate on making money rather than making headlines.
Another factor in the Philadelphia underworld is the return of several members of the Scarfo organization who spent close to 25 years in jail following their convictions for racketeering in 1988. Scarfo, 83, is one of the last of 16 defendants convicted in that case to remain behind bars. His release date, according to prison records, is 2033. In effect, he is serving a life sentence.
The convictions announced today capped a tumultuous jury deliberation process that took up 21 days over a four-week period. Two jurors were replaced by alternates during deliberations, one became ill and the other admitted to prior negative knowledge about a defense witness.
Whether that second juror tainted the jury panel could be one area for defense appeals. The judge denied a defense motion for a mistrial over that issue during deliberations.
Defense lawyers are expected to appeal on several grounds, but that process could take years and offers no immediate relief for those convicted.
Several of those defendants may have more serious criminal problems connected to the unsolved gangland murder of John “Johnny Gongs” Casasanto in 2003.
A key suspect in that case, mob soldier Anthony Nicodemo, was arrested in December for the shooting of a South Philadelphia man. Nicodemo has been held without bail pending a preliminary hearing scheduled for Feb. 20 in Common Pleas Court.
Nicodemo is charged with murder conspiracy and related offenses in connection with the gangland-style slaying of Gino DiPietro, who was gunned down on a neighborhood street corner on the afternoon of Dec. 13. Nicodemo’s arrest has sparked speculation that law enforcement authorities will pressure him to cooperate and tell what he knows about the Casasanto murder in order to help himself in the pending murder case.
No one has been charged with the Johnny Gongs hit, but authorities believe it was tied to underworld unrest at a time when Merlino and Ligambi were sharing power. Authorities would like to link both mob leaders to that shooting and have mentioned several other mob figures, including Canalichio, as individuals who may have knowledge about what went down and why on the night Casasanto was shot in the back of the head.
Casasanto was found sprawled on the floor of his rowhouse kitchen, leading to speculation that he knew those who killed him and let them into his house.
Philadelphia Police homicide detectives have a substantial file on the murder case and have interviewed potential witnesses. Investigators have a theory about how the murder took place and who was involved, identifying two shooters and a lookout. But to date they have not had strong enough evidence to make any arrests.
Sources say, however, that either Nicodemo or Canalichio could provide that information. The question posed by one law enforcement source was “Who goes first?”