Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mistrial In Mob Case?


By George Anastasia
for bigtrial.net

The case against Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and six co-defendants appeared to be teetering on the brink of a mistrial today as lawyers met behind closed doors with the judge for several hours to discuss the possible dismissal of up to three jurors who have been deliberating for more than a week in the high-profile case.

Lawyers were tight-lipped as they emerged from the session, held in the courtroom but behind locked doors. Jurors were released for the day shortly before 4 p.m. and were told to report to court tomorrow morning at the usual 8:30 a.m. starting time. But they were cautioned not to begin deliberations.

Lawyers, meanwhile, are expected to show up for a hearing -- which again may be closed to the public -- at which the future of the trial will be determined.

Deliberations came off the tracks around noontime as the jury was scheduled to come back into the courtroom to listen to tapes they had requested. The tapes focused on discussions between cooperating witnesses Louis "Bent Finger Lou" Monacello and Frank "Frankie the Fixer" DiGiacomo, associates of co-defendant George Borgesi.

This was the first time since deliberations began on Jan. 8 that the jury had posed any questions related to Borgesi. The 49-year-old mobster, who is Ligambi's nephew, is charged with running a bookmaking and loansharking operation from prison through Monacello.

But before the tapes could be played, U.S. District Court Judge Eduardo Robreno was handed a note from his clerk. The note apparently came from the jury room. Robreno called the lawyers to a sidebar conference and then abruptly recessed the proceedings.

Information has been sketchy ever since, but according to several sources, one of the jurors made critical remarks about the credibility and reliability of a defense witness, Jerry Davis, whose testimony undermined Monacello's statements on the witness stand.

Why the juror waited until three months into the trial to disclose that she knew anything about a defense witness -- grounds for her dismissal -- and whether her comments had tainted the rest of the jury panel became the operative questions throughout an afternoon of closed door meetings.

Robreno first questioned the juror, a young African-American woman, and then individually quesioned the 11 other jury members to determine if anything she had said about Davis would influence their ability to remain impartial.

After the judge finished questioning each juror, the prosecutors and defense attorneys, along with the defendants, were brought into the locked courtroom and were allowed to listen to the judge's questioning and the jurors' answers, which had been taped.

Based on those answers, according to several individuals familiar with what took place, the defense has asked that the woman juror who raised questions about Davis and two other members of the panel be dismissed and replaced with alternate jurors who have been on standby since deliberations began.

A motion for a mistrial is also under consideration, but seveal sources said neither the judge nor the majority of the defendants want to scuttle the case at this point. A new trial at a later date could mean that the five defendants who have been denied bail remain in jail.

Most legal experts also believe that a retrial is usually to the prosecution's advantage.

Should the judge seat the three remaining alternates, deliberations would proceed without any more alternates available. Two alternates were seated during the trial and a third was placed on the panel Wednesday after a juror called out sick for a second straight day.

Seating the three alternates would also require that deliberations start anew, setting back the process once again.

Monacello, 46, is considered the linchpin in the case against Borgesi. His tesimony, supported in part by DiGiacomo, tied the jailed mobster to a bookmaking and loansharking operation in Delaware County. Borgesi has been serving a 14-year sentence on an unrelated racketeering charge since 2001 and has been behind bars for most of the time period covered in the current case.

The defense argued that Monacello used Borgesi's name to enhance his own status in the underworld and that he was operating on his own while claiming to be Borgesi's point man. Davis, who lived next door to Monacello in South Philadelphia, testified about drinking sessions in Monacello's basement in which the brash talking mob associate boasted about his status, claimed that he had his own mob crew and talked of how he hated Ligambi.

On several occasions, Davis testified, Monacello said he should be the boss of the crime family.

Davis, a long-time employee of Philadelphia City Council, was apparently known to the juror who, sources say, told other members of the panel that a friend of hers who worked in City Hall said that Davis was not to be trusted.

The juror was obligated to disclose what she knew or had heard about Davis once she realized he was a witness, but apparently opted not to do so until discussions about his testimony came up during deliberations.

How well the jury deliberation process was proceeding even before today's chaos was an open question. The original jury foreman asked to step down Wednesday, an indication of friction in the jury room. And at the start of today's session, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Labor asked the judge to send the jury a copy of the 52-count indictment.

Labor said it appeared the jury was "wandering in the desert."

Robreno denied the request. Since the jury hadn't asked to see the indictment, he said, sending it to them unsolicited might be interpreted as the court's attempt to direct or focus deliberations.

The wandering in the desert line drew responses from both defendants and defense attorneys. Mob underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino joked about needing a pair of sandals. And Christopher Warren, the lawyer for co-defendant Joseph Licata, said the line sounded like some of the dialogue from the movie The Ten Commandments.

Another line from that movie, Warren said, aptly described the defense's posture in the case -- "Let my people go."

George Anastasia can be reached at gnanastia@verizon.net.

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