NEW YORK CITY — His dark suit was rumpled, his Brooklyn accent thick, but reputed organized crime boss Carmine (Junior) Persico held center stage for 90 minutes Tuesday in an emotional closing argument at the Mafia "commission" trial in federal court.
Acting as his own lawyer, as he has throughout the 10-week trial, Persico pleaded with the jurors not to send him back to prison just because he is a member of the Mafia.
"Put aside any preconceptions or prejudices you might have about the Mafia," said the balding, bespectacled reputed head of the Columbo crime family. "Membership alone is not enough to be a crime."
"Mafia, Mafia, Mafia," Persico, 52, said later, raising his voice. "Take Mafia out of this trial and there's no case here."
Powerful Mafia Families
It's a point federal prosecutors do not dispute. The indictment charges Persico and seven other alleged leaders or top associates of the nation's five most powerful Mafia families--the Genovese, Gambino, Columbo, Bonanno and Lucchese crime groups--with operating a governing "commission" that authorized such crimes as murder, extortion and loan-sharking.
Prosecutor John F. Savarese said in his closing argument last Friday that the defendants were "the board of directors of a vast criminal enterprise" that has controlled the nation's organized crime since the 1930s. He said the commission controlled New York's concrete construction industry by forming a "club" to allocate large concrete contracts and that it extorted kickbacks of 2% from contractors.
Savarese said the payoffs were collected by Ralph Scopo, an alleged member of the Columbo group and former president of New York's Concrete Workers' Distict Council. Scopo's lawyer, John Jacobs, admitted in his closing argument that Scopo was guilty of bid-rigging and price-fixing, but not the crimes charged in the indictment.
"Price-fixing and bid-rigging is not right," Jacobs said. "But price-fixing and bid-rigging is not extortion. Price-fixing and bid-rigging is not racketeering."
Wiretap Tapes Played
Federal prosecutors have called the commission trial the keystone of their multicity effort to break Mafia leadership. During the trial, they played more than 150 wiretap tapes, showed more than 500 surveillance photographs, and called 85 witnesses.
Persico said prosecutors had given jurors their "first glimpse into the dark side of the underworld." But he said the government had no "direct evidence" against him, and he attacked "despicable" informants, including a brother-in-law who turned him in for a $50,000 reward.
"When does it end?" Persico asked emotionally, his wife, Joyce, and four of his children watching closely from the gallery. "When do they leave me alone?"
He derided prosecution evidence, at one point holding up a poster-sized photograph of his family farm in upstate New York. "They brought in a picture of half of New York state," he said, as several jurors laughed. "Don't that look sinister?"
Taught Self Law
Persico, who schooled himself in law while in prison, appeared nervous at first. But he spoke directly to jurors, stopping once in mid-sentence to smile warmly and say, "God bless you," when a gray-haired woman juror sneezed.
Persico is the first known Mafia leader to defend himself at trial. He was assisted by attorney Stanley Meyer, who later gave him high marks. "I think he's very intelligent . . . " Meyer said. "He's a diamond in the rough."
Persico has spent most of the last 12 years in prison on two separate convictions for hijacking, scheming to bribe an Internal Revenue Service agent and other crimes.
But prosecutor Savarese said Persico had acted as a crime boss "in or out of prison" by conducting criminal business by telephone and via couriers.
Persico is also awaiting sentencing on a conviction last June on separate charges stemming from the extortion scheme in New York's concrete industry. Those charges included labor racketeering, union corruption, embezzlement, loan-sharking and illegal narcotics.
Other defense lawyers also praised Persico's performance, saying his personal approach, though rough around the edges, could sway jurors.
"I think the jury paid a lot more attention to Persico than the other defense lawyers," said Anthony Cardinale, attorney for Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno, alleged head of the Genovese crime group.
Another of the defendants, Anthony (Tony Ducks) Corallo, 73, reputed head of the Lucchese crime family, said in a brief interview that he thought Persico was "wonderful."
When asked if he regretted not representing himself as well, Corallo replied tersely, "I'm not sorry about nothing."