NEW YORK – The fourth racketeering trial of John “Junior” Gotti began Monday with the government portraying the Mafia heir as a maniacal killer and chronic criminal who has dodged prison by intimidating witnesses and obstructing justice.
Gotti’s lawyer, Charles Carnesi, tried to debunk that picture by telling a jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan that federal prosecutors have assembled a cast of mob killers trying to win leniency for their crimes by testifying that Gotti ordered assaults and murders.
Carnesi said Gotti never had anything to do with killings in the late 1980s and early 1990s of two drug dealers, despite claims of the witnesses, including one who could have faced the death penalty if convicted of charges he faced before he began co-operating.
And he said Gotti, 45, should be acquitted of a racketeering charge accusing him of a laundry list of traditional organized crime family crimes because Gotti quit the family business in 1999 and was already punished for anything that happened beforehand.
Three earlier racketeering trials of Gotti in 2005 and 2006 ended with deadlocked juries. For each trial, prosecutors reshaped the case with a common thread that Gotti followed his father as the street boss of the Gambinos, one of New York’s five organized crime families.
Each of the three trials focused on charges that Gotti had plotted to kidnap and beat Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels crime-fighting group, in retaliation for Sliwa’s radio-show rants about the Gotti family during the racketeering prosecution of his father. Gotti’s father died in prison in 2002.
In the last unsuccessful prosecution of the younger Gotti, the government highlighted Gotti’s finances in an attempt to show he kept participating in mob crimes even after he pleaded guilty to federal charges in 1999 and began a five-year prison sentence.
On Monday, though, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elie Honig put the evidence on a more violent track, casting Gotti as a vicious killer since the early 1980s, when, the government alleges, he stabbed a man during a bar brawl and then taunted him as he bled to death.
Honig said the lone witness to the stabbing was found hanging by his neck a year later from a tree branch that was below the man’s height.
Honig said the young Gotti ordered killings of drug dealers in 1988 and 1991 who were obstructing a massive cocaine operation he co-ordinated out of a network of bars in Queens.
The prosecutor said Gotti “routinely ordered and gave out beatings and stabbings and shootings.”
Then, for emphasis, he added that there were “too many for me to go through now.”
Still, Honig referenced the attacks on Sliwa, saying Gotti ordered his associates to give Sliwa a “hospital beating” after taking the on-air attacks as a “personal insult.” Sliwa was first beaten with a baseball bat in 1992, and was later kidnapped, shot and nearly killed.
He also told jurors that Gotti arranged violent home invasion robberies and once tightened the family’s hold on the city’s construction industry by putting the owner of one company’s head through a Sheetrock wall to force him to make timely payments to the Gambinos.
Gotti, Honig said, has “left a trail of victims in his wake.”
Honig warned jurors that Gotti had long managed to obstruct justice, including with a “bogus claim that he quit the mob.”
The prosecutor said Gotti has continued to accept “tribute payments” from fellow organized crime associates that might explain the $350,000 in cash investigators found in gym bag in a broken refrigerator in the basement of one of his buildings.
But Carnesi said jurors would hear taped conversations in which Gotti repeatedly says he truly did quit the mob in 1999.
“Keep an open mind until all the evidence is in,” he told them.
At least some jurors, though, were indicating they did not want to stick around for the trial, much less the evidence.
Seven jurors sent notes to the judge Monday giving reasons why they should not serve. The reasons were not immediately disclosed, but the judge swore them in and began the trial anyway.
Associated Press writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.