Saturday, February 2, 2013

Groundhog Day At The Mob Trial

By George Anastasia
For Bigtrial.net

Larry O'Connor, the lawyer for co-defendant Gary Battaglini, said it best.

"Don't mess with me pork chop."
"It's Groundhog Day," the lawyer quipped as the jury in the mob racketeering case was completing its 18th day of deliberations without a verdict. "The jury saw it's shadow, so I guess that means six more weeks of deliberations."

Edwin Jacobs Jr., the attorney for lead defendant, mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, picked up on the theme a few minutes later.

"Every morning I wake up and the same song is playing on the radio," said Jacobs, "then I come here and we do the same thing all over again."

The movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray that Jacobs was channeling finally ended.

The assumption is that eventually deliberations will end as well. But as the panel moved into Super Bowl Sunday, nobody was betting when.

"I heard it's one the prop (proposition) bets in Vegas," joked one of the two dozen friends and family members who crowded the 15th floor of the otherwise empty federal courthouse this afternoon to moniitor the jury's progress during an extraordinary Saturday session. "Will the jury reach a verdict in the case before kickoff?"

The panel of eight men and four women were about three hours into the day when they announced in a note to Judge Eduardo Robreno that they had reached an impasse and needed some "guidance." After consulting with defense and prosecution attorneys, Robreno read a standard charge encouraging the panel to continue working and counseling that it was "not unusual" in complicated cases for juries to stumble at times.

Four hours later, shortly before the 3 p.m. deadline for Saturday session, the panel offered its own Groundhog Day moment, asking to once again hear some tapes that were played during the 10-week trial. Over the objections of defense attorneys, who said at a certain Robreno had to tell the jurors to rely on their own recollections, the judge had the three tapes played in open court.

The tapes, from 2001 and 2003, focused on video poker machines. One tape was a discussion between co-defendants Joseph "Mousie" Massimino and Anthony Staino about a payment. Two others were conversations between Massimino and Curt Arbitman, a video poker machine operator who became a government witness and testified for the prosecution.

What the tapes mean to the deliberations was an open question.

"I'm not going to speculate on why they want to listen to the tapes," said Robreno in rejecting the defense argument that the tapes should not be played. "That's their job."

What struck many observers, however, is that questions about the video poker machine business and other tapes related to that topic were played for the jury early in deliberations. In that sense, this was like the Bill Murray movie.

Ligambi, Massimino and Staino are accused of using their positions as mob figures to take over a video poker machine business in South Philadelphia. It is part of the racketeering charge in the case. The fact that the jury returned to that topic again raised the issue of whether it had lost its way in these deliberations.

"Wandering in the desert" was the phrase Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Labor used three weeks ago when the jury seemed to be without focus. Labor asked then, and again today, for the judge to provide the jury with a copy of the 52-count indictment that is the heart of the case.

Robreno denied the request, indicating that he would only do so if the jury specifically asked for the document. Defense attorneys indicated they were opposed to giving the panel the indictment.

Christopher Warren, the lawyer for co-defendant Joseph "Scoops" Licata, said the indictment was "the government's version of the case" and that it would be unduly prejudicial to give it to the jury at this point in deliberations.

Ligambi, 73, and his six co-defendants are charged with racketeering conspiracy and with related gambling, extortion and loansharking charges.

The defendants, five of whom have been held without bail, started the day upbeat after hearing about an impasse that gave rise to speculation that the jury might be close to completing its work or at a deadlock that would end the process and perhaps offer at least some partial verdicts.

"They found they're way out of the desert," the always vocal Massimino quipped as he was lead into the courtroom shortly before noon. But three hours later, during his second appearance, he said, "They're back in the desert."

Co-defendant George Borgesi, whose fate may literally hang on whether the panel accepts or rejects the testimony of mob informant Louis "Bent Finger Lou" Monacello, told friends and family members, "Don't worry about nothing." Neither Borgesi nor Monacello have been mentioned in any deliberation questions in more than a week, a possible indication that the panel has decided his guilt or innocence.

And the always insightful Damion Canalichio, as he was being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, added, "This is all bullshit."

Whatever it is, the only thing that is certain is that the jury will be back at it tomorrow.

George Anastasia can be contacted at ganastasia@verizon.net.

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