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Judge Tosses `Mafia Cops' Convictions

He rules the statute of limitations has expired, and orders a new trial on lesser charges.

July 01, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In a stinging rebuke to federal prosecutors, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein on Friday threw out the convictions of the so-called Mafia Cops, saying that the government's case stretched the law "to the breaking point" by charging them with racketeering after the five-year statute of limitations had expired.

Weinstein did not mince words, however, in addressing the defendants -- retired New York police detectives Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa. He said the trial "overwhelmingly established" that the two men had "kidnapped, murdered and assisted kidnappers and murderers, all the while sworn to protect the public against such crimes."

"It will undoubtedly appear peculiar to many people that heinous criminals like the defendants ... should go unwhipped of justice. Yet our Constitution, statutes and morality require that we be ruled by the law, not by the vindictiveness or the advantages of the moment," Weinstein wrote in his 77-page memorandum. He ordered that the two receive a new trial on lesser charges of money laundering and dealing drugs.

Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for U.S. Atty. Roslynn Mauskopf, said prosecutors planned to appeal Weinstein's decision.

The ruling marks a sudden reversal of fortune for Eppolito and Caracappa.

On April 6, a jury found them guilty of 70 counts of racketeering in one of the most sensational cases of police corruption in New York's history. In a monthlong trial, witnesses testified that the two friends had formed a partnership with Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, an underboss with the Lucchese family. In exchange for a shared $4,000 monthly retainer, they would pass along police information about mob figures and occasionally act as hit men themselves.

"They didn't deliver us from evil, they themselves were evil personified," Mauskopf said the day their convictions were announced. "They used that shield, they used that power to murder, to kidnap -- all for the mob, all for their own greed."

After the verdict, Eppolito and Caracappa fired their high-powered attorneys and last week asked for a mistrial on the grounds that their defense was not competent.

Eddie Hayes, who represented Caracappa at trial, said Weinstein's decision vindicates his defense strategy, which he said leaned heavily on the statute of limitations issue -- knowing it would not be compelling to the jury.

"I thought the government overreaching here was clear from the beginning, and I always said that," said Bruce Cutler, who represented Eppolito. "If you ask me if I expected it, I didn't expect it." Still, Cutler said, he was "gratified."

The statute of limitations question first arose last summer, when the former detectives were indicted. Weinstein called it a "weak link in [the government's] allegations."

Prosecutors had strong evidence linking Eppolito and Caracappa to eight murders between 1986 and 1990, including one in which they turned on police lights, pulled a man's car over and shot him in the head. Those crimes clearly fell outside the five-year statute of limitations for racketeering, and Weinstein urged prosecutors to charge them under federal murder-for-hire laws.

Prosecutors reframed their indictment several times but, for reasons they have not explained, opted to stick with racketeering. They argued that Eppolito and Caracappa had continued their conspiracy in Las Vegas with a cluster of lesser crimes committed between 1994 and 2005.

In Friday's decision, Weinstein said the government had failed to prove there was a continuing conspiracy.

"A retired contractor who opens a delicatessen in his retirement may encourage his old employees and clients to buy their lunches at his new store, and time on job sites may have taught him what brand of pastrami those customers will prefer; that does not mean he remains in the construction business," the judge wrote.

Weinstein added that although he had concerns about the statute of limitations before the trial began, he chose to allow the trial to proceed "in order to preserve the government's right to appeal" if he should reverse the jury's verdict.

Weinstein, 85, has made headlines with some regularity during his 40 years on the bench. In 1997, he ordered Vincent "The Chin" Gigante -- who had worn a bathrobe and slippers as street clothes for years -- to appear "properly attired, shaved and barbered." Gigante complied.

More often, he has drawn notice for using his power in the name of reform, as in a 1965 case of 23 draft-dodgers who fled to Canada. Weinstein decided the fugitives deserved representation and appointed counsel for them, said Stephen Gillars, a professor at the NYU School of Law.

"The word 'maverick' fits nicely in the best of senses," Gillars said. Weinstein's decisions have been overturned by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals for "going too far out on a limb," he said.

The decision in the Mafia cops case, though, focuses on a narrow legal issue. In explaining his decision, Weinstein quoted the play "A Man for All Seasons," in which Sir Thomas More argues that even the devil deserves the full benefit of law: "This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast -- men's laws, not God's -- and if you cut them down, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

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