NEW YORK — A federal jury in Newark on Friday acquitted 20 alleged members of the Lucchese crime family of New Jersey, dealing a major setback to federal prosecutors and ending the longest federal criminal trial in the nation's history.
After deliberating for only 14 hours, the jury announced verdicts of not guilty to 77 counts related to alleged loan-sharking, gambling, drug dealing and fraudulent credit card operations spanning a 10-year period. The verdicts, which closed a trial that had begun with jury selection 21 months ago, were greeted with 10 minutes of standing applause from the defendants and their 20 lawyers.
Defendants hugged jurors, and several jurors and defendants wept.
Federal prosecutors in the New York area have scored major victories in anti-mob trials against the Gambino, Columbo and Bonanno crime families in the last decade, and this trial was to be another milestone in the war against the mob. The case represented one of the most aggressive uses of the federal anti-racketeering statute, bringing virtually the entire New Jersey membership of the reputed Lucchese crime family to trial.
Prosecutors had called the case the most important anti-mob trial in New Jersey's history, and hoped it would break the mob's grip on the state. But the sprawling size of the case may have been one of its weaknesses. The jury selection began on Nov. 21, 1986, and the first prosecution witness was called to the stand on April 7, 1987. "Apparently the jury just resented the length (of the trial) and the breadth of the indictment," V. Grady O'Malley, an assistant U.S. attorney, said after the verdicts were read at mid-afternoon.
Other prosecutors suggested that the verdict might have not have been an acquittal had the jurors been given anonymity.
The government case alleged that Anthony (Tumac) Accetturo of Hollywood, Fla., controlled much of the state's illegal gambling, loan-sharking, drug-dealing and illegal credit-card operations from self-imposed exile in Florida. Accetturo was alleged to have relied on Michael Taccetta as head of his day-to-day operations.
Government evidence quoted one defendant as bragging: "We own New Jersey."
The voluminous evidence included dozens of hours of tape recordings taken at a Newark luncheonette, the Hole-in-the-Wall, which is decorated with pictures of such characters as Meyer Lansky and Al Capone. Most of the wire-tap evidence, however, related only to conversations about gambling and not to other crimes.
400 Tapes, 89 Witnesses
The evidence included 400 FBI surveillance tapes, testimony of 89 witnesses and thousands of documents and photos.
But defense attorneys insisted the case was built on circumstantial evidence about minor offenses. "They take a little talk about sports gambling and turn it into Murder Inc.," said David Ruhnke, attorney for Martin Taccetta, alleged by prosecutors to be the "consigliere" for the crime family.
Defense attorneys complained that prosecutors alleged drug offenses but produced no drugs, and alleged loan-sharking, but produced no loan-sharking victims. "The jury's verdict was a message--an insult, really--to the government," said defense attorney Ruhnke.
Defense attorneys cross-examined the government's witnesses at length, trying to shake the credibility of the acknowledged career criminals who testified against the defendants. "These witnesses were murderers, thieves, drug addicts--the worst people in society," said Robert L. Brown, the attorney who represented defendant James Fede.
Defense attorneys claimed the evidence proved no more than that the defendants regularly met for lunch. "This case was hearsay built on innuendo, built on conjecture, built on speculation" said defense attorney Brown.
G. Robert Blakey, a Notre Dame law school professor and specialist in organized crime prosecutions, said the verdict is "a setback but not a sign that the government is losing the war against organized crime." If the defendants did what they are alleged to have done "they'll probably be indicted again and the government will get another crack at them," he said.
Blakey said government prosecutors have in the past two years lost two other major anti-mob cases which, like this one, relied largely on the testimony of mob insiders. The cases were those against Nicodemo Scarfo, alleged boss of a mob organization in Philadelphia, and against John Gotti, alleged head of a New York City crime family.
Insiders who turn state's witness are "impeachable witnesses, because they've been deeply involved in crime themselves," said Blakey, who helped draft the federal anti-racketeering statute as a U.S. Senate staff member.
He noted that the government has had much better luck with cases that rely more heavily on wire-tap evidence, which juries find far more believable.
Last April, this case surpassed the 1985-1987 "Pizza connection" heroin-dealing trial in New York City as the nation's longest-running trial.
A key prosecution witness was Nicholas Mitola, an admitted mob member. He spent several months on the stand, beginning in August, 1987, discussing drug deals, bookmaking and other crimes.
Mitola told the jury of paying "tribute" to Taccetta at Christmas in the form of several bottles of whiskey and $1,000 in cash.
The defense did not produce a single witness, contending that there was no need because the prosecution's case had broken down on cross-examination. Closing arguments began in early July and consumed more than six weeks.