How Gotti Jr. Beat the Rap

An unbelievable courtroom upset.

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In the next day or two, John A. Gotti will leave the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Manhattan, utter a few words to a horde of reporters, and drive to his house in Oyster Bay, Long Island, where his mother has promised a welcome-home feast. It’s a spectacle sure to gall the federal prosecutors who spent more than a year trying to convict the one-time head of the Gambino crime family of a Whitman’s Sampler of felonies, including extortion, stock fraud, and the kidnapping of Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa.

Gotti just barely beat the rap. Last week, a jury acquitted the 41-year-old son of John “the Dapper Don” Gotti of stock fraud and hung on the remaining three counts. Only one juror stood between Gotti and guilt on racketeering conspiracy, and there was an 11-1 split on the charge that he plotted to extort construction workers. He nearly went away—or, technically, he nearly stayed away, since he’s been in prison since pleading guilty to racketeering in 1999—for a very long time. The U.S. Attorney’s office says it will refile the charges.

How did this happen? Even though Gotti was already locked up, we’re talking about a marquee mobster here, whom the government wanted to nail. They fielded a varsity bench of turncoats, all of them eager to rat out their former capo. This was supposed to be a rout. Even Gotti’s lawyers appeared stunned by the result. One of them, Jeffrey Lichtman, wept when the judge announced, the day before the verdict, that the jury said it was deadlocked.

For the government, the trouble started with those defectors. Naturally, they were a bunch of highly colorful sociopaths. One of them, the Gambino associate Andrew DiDonato, coolly recounted the bullet he fired into the head of a neighbor who had the nerve to sell his wife a car. (“I didn’t want my wife taking favors from other men,” he explained.) This, of course, isn’t the first time that the government has relied on the testimony of miscreants to put away gangsters. As prosecutor Michael McGovern noted in his summation, people like Gotti don’t plot and scheme with pillars of the community.

Unfortunately for McGovern, the defectors in this case didn’t just come across as thugs—they came across as liars. As Lichtman and his partner for the trial, Marc Fernich, both noted, all of the government’s witnesses were facing lengthy prison terms and had strong incentives to make up incriminating tales. The more dirt they dished, the more likely they would receive light sentences for their own crimes. On the stand, nearly all the informants admitted that they hoped to follow in the footsteps of their former colleague Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, whose testimony put Gotti the elder behind bars. In return for his candor, Gravano joined the Witness Protection Program, despite confessing to some 19 murders.

Throughout August, these “Sons of Sammy,” as the defense tagged them, grudgingly acknowledged that they were bargaining for their freedom. “You want a pass on all your murders now, don’t you?” Lichtman asked Frank Fappiano, who had turned out to be a fairly prolific murderer. “I would like to get that,” Fappiano murmured. Several confessed that in previous cases they had lied under oath. Others admitted they had lied every day of their lives.

Worse, these guys told stories that didn’t jibe with each other, especially when it came to the 1992 kidnapping of Sliwa. A former Gambino captain named Michael “Mikey Scars” DiLeonardo swore that Gotti plotted the crime with him at the Carousel Diner in Queens. Meanwhile, an ex-soldier named Joseph D’Angelo claimed that he and Gotti drafted the details in a basement in Brooklyn, at a meeting that DiLeonardo didn’t attend. One of these guys lied, and the jurors noticed. The first testimony “read back” they requested were these irreconcilable accounts of Sliwa’s abduction.

To further muddy the situation, Sliwa’s own version of the crime couldn’t be squared with that of D’Angelo, even though the government claimed D’Angelo drove the car that day. Both men agreed on the basics: that Sliwa was targeted for ranting against Gotti senior on his WABC talk radio show; that he was picked up in a taxi rigged so the doors would bolt shut; that someone wearing a mask popped up from under the front passenger seat and shot Sliwa, and that Sliwa escaped by lunging out a window. But Sliwa claimed the assailant shouted, “Take that, you son of a bitch.” D’Angelo claimed the line was something like, “Give me your wallet.” And that was just the beginning. There were differences about the number of shots, the angle of the shots, and on and on.

It didn’t help that under cross-examination, Sliwa trimmed and hedged about matters he didn’t need to trim and hedge about, like the size of his speaking fees. For months on his radio show he had billed his appearance at the Gotti trial as a showdown between Loudmouth Good and Lunkhead Evil, which are the roles these characters play in New York’s tabloid arena. But what Sliwa called on the stand his gift for “theater of the mind”—all the acts and comments that generate publicity—came across as something less whimsical during his long day of testimony. When Sliwa finally wobbled out of the witness box, he seemed nuts.

Gotti’s defense, by contrast, was a model of coherence. He claimed—through his lawyers, since he declined at the last minute to testify—that he’d quit the mob after his guilty plea in ‘99, and that he yearned for nothing more than the minivan life of a suburban dad. Yes, Gotti had done some horrible things during his tenure as a made man and boss, his lawyers said, but that was when he craved the approval of his louche and violent poppa. “Changing was not easy for John,” Lichtman said of his client in his opening statement. “He would have to disappoint the only role model he ever had—his father.”

The prosecution scoffed at this withdrawal argument and played pre-1999 videos in court of Gotti the younger visiting Gotti the elder in prison. Big mistake. The Dapper Don was heard demonically browbeating Junior, adding plausibility to the daddy-made-me defense. This miscue was typical of the government’s strategy: They over-lawyered this case. Their rendering of Gotti would have been twice as plausible with a fraction of the evidence and half as many witnesses. And it hurt that some of those witnesses sounded more dangerous than the man on trial—altogether, they have confessed to planning or committing about 30 murders, a crime that Gotti has never been accused of.

Not that Gotti’s legal troubles are behind him. He could again face trial on those hung charges, or new informants might someday bring to light now-unknown crimes. But give the man some credit. He’s trying to forge a new path out of the mob—by convincing a jury he isn’t a threat to society and convincing his former paisans that he isn’t a threat to them. So far, weirdly enough, it’s sort of working.