By Larry Neumeister, Associated Press Writer
A new judge, new charges, new star witness and a new jury added up to a familiar result — a mistrial for John “Junior” Gotti on racketeering charges. This one, though, might be his last.
After four trials in five years — all ending in hung juries — for the son of John Gotti, the stylish former head of the Gambino family, both sides seem weary of the fight.
Once a deadlocked jury forced an end to the 2-month-old trial Tuesday, jurors hugged Gotti’s family outside federal court. Prosecutors did not demand he be held under house arrest or announce plans for a retrial. A prosecutor shook his hand and wished him well.
This prosecution seemed to be the government’s most serious attempt to permanently incarcerate the 45-year-old man who has admitted he was once part of the Gambino crime family before he quit in the 1990s.
Gotti was accused in this trial of roles in two murders; the most serious allegation against him in earlier cases was a beating of Guardian Angel leader Curtis Sliwa. Jurors deliberated 11 days before saying they had been evenly split on almost every count.
Ron Kuby, who has represented the elder Gotti in post-conviction issues and has testified at “Junior” Gotti’s trial, said that while the first three cases against the accused mob leader were narrowly focused, the fourth charged him with “every conceivable act” and still failed to win a conviction.
“They have a case that they can’t win,” Kuby said. “If Gotti’s going to prison, he’s going to have to commit another crime.”
Gotti has said he quit organized crime before pleading guilty in 1999 to racketeering charges, and agreed to serve five years in prison.
The smiling father of six walked out of court Tuesday and celebrated with a steak dinner and shopping trip at a Long Island toy store — the first time in a dozen years he was not in jail or under house arrest.
“We’re just soooo thankful to have the family whole and together. Lots of catching up on … school, kids and such,” Gotti’s sister, Victoria, wrote The Associated Press in an e-mail Friday. Her brother is “a bit overwhelmed,” she said, “as coming out of solitary confinement to absolute freedom is a bit overwhelming to say the least.”
Gotti thanked jurors last week for keeping an open mind despite mob lore and celebrity surrounding his family — “a hard thing to do.”
Federal prosecutors in Tampa, Florida, brought the latest case in 2008, but it was returned to Manhattan by a judge who said he was left with the “unmistakable and disquieting impression” that the government had shopped for a trial location where it might finally win. The three previous trials had been in Manhattan.
Still, the move enabled the case to be brought before a judge different from one who had seemed to grow increasingly skeptical of the government with each of the first three trials.
The upgraded charges and new star government witness — childhood friend John Alite — seemed to embolden prosecutors to believe they might regain the momentum of the first Gotti trial in August 2005, when one lone juror stood in the way of convicting Gotti of racketeering and extortion.
Perhaps wondering if the public’s fascination with the Mafia was affecting jurors, a prosecutor announced at the first retrial months later that he would spoil the romanticized image some people have of organized crime. But then prosecutors put into evidence a 1970s photograph of singer Frank Sinatra with men from America’s largest Mafia family.
By the trial’s end, eight of 12 jurors were willing to acquit Gotti.
The third trial focused heavily on Gotti’s finances as prosecutors tried to show that he was still involved with the Gambino family despite his claims he had left it. Jurors said afterward that the jury agreed unanimously that Gotti was responsible for the attack on Sliwa but divided over whether he had quit the Gambino family.
Gotti emerged from the third trial saying the government had to end its Gotti obsession, especially after the 2002 death in prison of his father.
“He’s dead. It’s over,” he said. “Just let us go. Let me move on with my life.”
By trial’s end, the debate over whether another trial should occur resumed, with one of the jurors saying outside court it would be abusive to retry the case. The government hasn’t yet announced its intentions.
Jim Walden, a defense attorney who once prosecuted organized crime cases, said a strong argument remains for a retrial.
“Hung juries, even repeated ones, shouldn’t cause prosecutors to shy away from the important duty of vindicating the rights of the people who were hurt,” Walden said.
But Kuby said the government erred with its star witness, an admitted mob enforcer who turned against his former friend. Jurors said that Alite was the least credible witness.
Kuby said that if a fifth trial occurs, the result will be the same.
“You can’t make John Gotti serve the equivalent of life in prison without parole simply by making him spend the rest of his life in a courtroom.”
Associated Press writer Tom Hays contributed to this story.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.