Two Boston men who spent 30 years in prison for an underworld slaying they did not commit are suing the federal government after the FBI withheld evidence that would have cleared them to protect an informant.
In a trial that opened Thursday, those men and the families of two others who were wrongfully convicted but died in prison are seeking damages from the government that could total more than $100 million.
Joseph Salvati, 72, and Peter Limone, 74, were exonerated in 2001 after a state judge found that FBI agents hid wiretap tapes and other information from state prosecutors to protect an FBI informant and former mob hit man, Joseph “The Animal” Barboza.
Barboza was a known mob assassin responsible for numerous hits during Boston’s gangland wars of the 1960s. He was also so vital to FBI efforts to crack the mob that the agency allowed him to frame four men for murder, attorneys for the plaintiffs said in opening statements.
The lawsuit accuses the federal government of malicious prosecution, conspiracy and depriving the men’s family of companionship.
Defense attorney blasts ‘a rigged game, a charade’
“It was a rigged game, a charade, a story concocted by Mr. Barboza and assented to by the FBI,” said attorney Austin McGuigan, who represents Salvati. “There was no hope the real story in this case would be uncovered.”
The case is the latest development in a scandal that unfolded in Boston about a decade ago, when it was learned that the FBI had a corrupt relationship with the mob, protecting killers who were informants and even tipping them off to pending indictments.
The lawsuit was filed after the Justice Department released documents in 2001 that showed the FBI withheld evidence from state prosecutors that could have cleared the men so the agency could protect an informant who actually committed the crime.
The plaintiffs have not asked for a specific dollar award, but briefs filed in the case point to past decisions that have awarded $1 million for each year wrongly imprisoned, which would total more than $100 million in this case.
Justice Department attorney Bridget Lipscomb said federal authorities had no duty to share information with state prosecutors, and cannot be liable for the results of a separate state investigation. She also noted the four men had access to some FBI information, as well as top-notch attorneys who raised doubts about Barboza’s testimony at their trial.
Limone, Louis Greco and Henry Tameleo were sentenced to death in 1968 for the murder of Edward “Teddy” Deegan, but were not executed before the death penalty was banned in 1975. Salvati was sentenced to life in prison.
Exonerated in 2001
Salvati, 72, and Limone, 74, were exonerated in 2001 after the Justice Department documents were released. Greco and Tameleo died behind bars before being exonerated.
The case is being tried without a jury before U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner.
On Thursday, attorneys for the men and their families, said the problems were rooted in a 1960s FBI policy of protecting informants’ identities at all costs.
Days before Deegan was shot in the head in a Chelsea alley, FBI wiretaps caught Barboza and Vincent “Jimmy” Flemmi asking a Rhode Island mob boss for permission for the hit. Informants later told FBI agents that Barboza, Flemmi and three other men were responsible. FBI agent Paul Rico, who handled top echelon informants, listed Deegan as among seven people killed by Flemmi.
“The Deegan murder was literally surrounded by information that Jimmy Flemmi was one of the killers,” said Michael Avery, who represents Limone and Tameleo’s family.
FBI called ‘masters of this prosecution’
But the FBI had recently recruited Flemmi as an informant and believed he would provide valuable information for years, McGuigan said. And when Barboza agreed to testify, he told the FBI he would never say anything to implicate his friend Flemmi, McGuigan said.
The FBI did not share any of this evidence with the state, Avery said, making the FBI “masters of this prosecution.”
In his testimony in the Deegan case, Barboza implicated Limone, Salvati and Greco because of personal grudges, and Tameleo because an FBI agent wanted to arrest him, according to attorney Juliane Balirro, who represents Limone.
The FBI had at least 20 descriptions of the Deegan murder that conflicted with Barboza’s testimony, but did not share them with prosecutors, she said.
Barboza was sentenced to a year and a day in prison after the Deegan trial, and later moved to California as the first participant of the federal witness-protection program. He was shot to death in San Francisco in 1976.
Lipscomb, the Justice Department attorney, said Barboza was subjected to more than six days of intense cross-examination during the trial, which included questions about Flemmi’s possible involvement and accusations that he switched who was involved.