For more than a month family members of mob boss Joe Ligambi and of his nephew and co-defendant George Borgesi have sat in the second row behind the defense table at the racketeering conspiracy retrial of the two South Philadelphia wiseguys.
Today, as the trial resumed after a five-day break, that row was empty.
Following a highly publicized flap on Friday over possible jury intimidation, the families of the two men opted not to attend the trial today and for the foreseeable future, according to one defense attorney.
"The government and the press were making them into a distraction," said Christopher Warren, Borgesi's lawyer, during a break in today's session. "They (the family members) have voluntarily decided to absent themselves from the proceedings."
Warren said a report in Saturday's Daily News and a feature about Borgesi's wife Alyson in the Sunday Inquirer were examples of the kind of media overkill that has plagued the trial almost since its start in November.
Ironically, members of the prosecution team also complained today about the focus of newspaper articles which, they say, has missed many of the salient points of testimony in the case. It may be one of the few points on which the prosecution and defense agree.
Warren said a Daily News report that some jurors had felt "intimidated" was incorrect.
Warren acknowledged that four members of the anonymously chosen jury panel had complained that family members of the defendants were "staring at them" during Friday's proceeding. But when questioned privately by Judge Eduardo Robreno, none said they felt intimidated.
"If it (intimidation) were a legitimate concern, we would have moved for a mistrial," Warren said.
He said family members, including Borgesi's wife, his brother Anthony, his mother Manny (who is also Ligambi's sister), Ligambi's brother Philip and Ligambi's wife Olivia, have opted to stay away so as not to create "a distraction" in the courtroom.
Maybe now the media will focus on the evidence and testimony, he said, adding that a profile of Alyson Borgesi in Sunday's paper was built around a government attempt to "provoke my client."
Alyson Borgesi's name surfaced repeatedly last week during testimony from Louis Monacello and Anthony Aponick, two mob associates whom prosecutors say worked for George Borgesi. Both witnesses said George Borgesi, from prison, relayed messages to them and others through his wife.
Monacello also testified that he made monthly cash payments to Alyson Borgesi to cover her husband's share of the gambling and bookmaking operations Monacello was running for him on the streets. George Borgesi was convicted in an unrelated racketeering case in 2001 and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The testimony of Monacello and Aponick go to the heart of the conspiracy charge against Borgesi. The 50-year-old mob leader is charged with conspiring to run a mob operation while he was in jail. Borgesi was found not guilty of 13 other counts tied to Monacello's gambling and loansharking operations in the first trial that ended in February. But the jury hung on the conspiracy count, resulting in the retrial.
Ligambi, 74, was acquitted of five of nine counts he faced, but is being retried on a conspiracy count, two gambling counts and a witness intimidation count on which that same jury hung.
Four other defendants were convicted and one was acquitted in that case.
In a courtroom devoid of family and friends, the focus of testimony today shifted from Borgesi to Ligambi. Two government witnesses, both admitted drug dealers, testified about loanshark debts they owed to members of the crime family.
Joseph Comerer spent more than two hours testifying about a $500 loan that he owed to Gary Battaglini, a mob associate linked to mob soldier Damion Canalichio. Both Battaglnii and Canalichio were convicted in the first Ligambi trial.
The $500 debt and Comerer's failure to repay it while working for the Pennsylvania State Police and recording phone calls and conversations seemed to underscore the defense position that the case against Ligambi is built around penny-ante crimes that have been used to fabricate a racketeering conspiracy that doesn't exist.
Comerer's credibility was also challenged. Among other things, he conceded that he once worked as an informant for the FBI, but that relationship ended when the feds accused him of stealing $500. Comerer denied that he stole the money.
What the jury wasn't told -- because of its possible prejudice and because it was irrelevant to the case at trial -- was that Comerer helped federal authorities build a drug case against Canalichio.
More pointed and potentially damaging testimony came from Michael Orlando who began cooperating with authorities after running up thousands of dollars in debts to mobsters between 1998 and 2002.
On one tape, Orlando complains to Battaglini about the thousands he owes to Canalichio and the late John "Johnny Gongs" Casasanto.
"I owe all the killers," he said.
More damaging, however, were comments made by Battaglini about the source of the loans and where the money was ultimately going. It was, he told Orlando, Ligambi's money.
"He doesn't want to hear nothing," Battagilni said of Ligambi's attitude toward deadbeats and his approach to associates who were running loansharking operations. "He wants his fucking money...every week. He wants his end."
The prosecution, in building the case against Ligambi, has alleged that as boss he benefitted from and shared in the gambling and loansharking operations of those under him in the organization. Battaglini's comment, secretly recorded by Orlando who was wearing an FBI supplied body wire, seemed to support that argument.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net