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Jury Acquits Mob Figure of Murder, Conspiracy

Alleged Philadelphia boss, imprisoned for racketeering, is cleared in associate's slaying.

March 09, 2004|From Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. — Reputed Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino was acquitted Monday on federal conspiracy and murder charges stemming from the 1996 shooting death of an associate who prosecutors say was killed for being disloyal.

Merlino, who is imprisoned on related racketeering charges, was accused of ordering the murder of Joseph Sodano. Sodano was found dead in his minivan in Newark after being shot twice in the head.

Merlino, 42, was retried after a jury in 2001 failed to reach a consensus on murder charges. The jury did convict him on separate racketeering charges, leading to the 14-year prison term he is serving in Beaumont, Texas.

At the time of the killing, Merlino was the underboss of the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra, Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven D'Aguanno told the jury.

Prosecutors said Merlino decided to kill Sodano after Sodano refused to share the proceeds of his illicit activities as a "capo," or captain, in northern New Jersey.

Defense lawyer Edwin J. Jacobs Jr. called the verdict a "complete exoneration." The defense had suggested that Sodano was killed in a botched robbery attempt. Defense attorneys also attacked the credibility of key witnesses, focusing on inconsistencies between their testimony and prior statements.

Mobster Philip Casale Jr. admitted pulling the trigger and secretly taped many conversations with Merlino about the killing.

"I think the testimony was there," Assistant U.S. Atty. V. Grady O'Malley said. "I think the tape recordings bore out the government's case, but apparently they weren't persuaded."

Two other mob associates involved in the killing, Philadelphia mob boss Ralph Natale and New Jersey associate Peter "The Crumb" Caprio, pleaded guilty and have been cooperating with federal authorities.

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