Al Guart, New York Crime Journalist
Al Guart is a crime journalist and reporter from the New York Post. Al's
coverage includes terrorism and organized crime. This is the first in a
series of regular columns by him, exclusively for AmericanMafia.com.
By Al Guart
Call it the Strong Arm of the law. It surfaces in especially weak cases when federal prosecutors try to force a defendant to plead guilty so they can avoid the risk of losing face at trial. When it’s flexed, a defendant will find himself in a choke hold so tight he is ready to cry uncle.
The Strong Arm turned up in full force in the racketeering case against John A. ``Junior’’ Gotti from the outset last January.
First, the Arm kept Gotti behind bars on grounds he was a ``danger to the community.’’ Never mind that Gotti was not accused of any violent acts or that he had no prior criminal record. To make up for those weakness, the Arm found a (presumably imprisoned) drug dealer who was willing to say Gotti had robbed him of cash at gunpoint for the right reward.
The Arm was put to the test. It’s star witness, a muscle-bound mob wannabe named Willie Marshall, was supposed to provide direct evidence that Gotti was head of the Gambino crime family. But Marshall, who conned his way into the witness protection program, came up empty, saying he saw Gotti at two funerals and at a Christmas party but never spoke to him.
The judge called the Arm’s claim that Gotti was a mob boss ``bare bones’’ and ordered him released on a stringent $10 million bail package. The Arm made a few vain attempts to squeeze those who posted their homes, but after nine months in jail, the grip was loosened.
While all this was going on, the Arm seized the lion’s share of Gotti’s property as ``substitute assets,’’ which meant it couldn’t prove the property was illegitimate but wanted to keep them available should it win the case and seek forfeiture.
That should have made it difficult for Gotti to keep his powerful legal team and put up a hefty bail package. It should also have persuaded him to plead guilty. But a judge ruled it was wrong to restrain those assets before a conviction. The Arm appealed, but while the appeal was still pending, it re-indicted Gotti and seized the properties in question as ``direct proceeds’’ of crimes charged. The Arm later lost the appeal - but patted itself on the back for still being able to hold onto the money-producing assets.
Now the judge may call upon the Arm to prove even that claim as Gotti seeks the property to help pay for legal fees. The grip wanes further.
The final arm-twisting came with the ``global plea offer.’’ The Arm insisted Gotti and 10 others would have to all agree to plead guilty to get reduced prison terms. This led to turmoil on the defense side as suspects who were caught on tapes discussing gambling, extortion and loansharking wanted to plead - but Gotti and others refused. It made Gotti the heavy and put enormous pressure on him to take the deal.
You could see the Arm weaken over time. The offer, while Gotti’s assets were frozen and he was in the slammer, was 10 years. After his release, 8 years. Finally it went as low as 5 1/2 years. Ultimately, Gotti stood his ground and turned the deal down on Dec. 28. He wrestled the Arm from around his neck enough to claim some breathing space.
Ironically, had Gotti pleaded guilty, he would have been asked by a judge whether he was pressured in any way to take the rap. He would have had to say no for the judge to accept the plea. The Arm would have stood by silently as the lie was told.
The Arm’s tactics thus far have tested the limits of the Constitution. Are all citizens innocent until proven guilty? Or do we have to prove our innocence from day one? Do we have the right to keep our property before being convicted of a crime? Or do we have to fight to keep our belongings before a trial? Finally, should the government be allowed to coerce citizens into a guilty plea?
Just ask Junior Gotti.