Friday, August 24, 2007

The Clown goes verbal to deny he’s Keyser Soze

Reputed top mobster Lombardo makes high risk gambit
By Josh Casey

In a move that radically departed from mob courtroom strategies of thirty years or more, Joseph ‘The Clown’ Lombardo, reputed mobster and, moreover, widely alleged to be the hidden boss of the Chicago Outfit, took the stand in his own defense.


Mob boss 1982? or Keyser Soze 2006?


What makes Lombardo’s appearance on the stand highly unusual is that for decades, alleged mobsters have relied upon the maxim that silence is golden. In other words, you can’t get caught out if you don’t speak out. That, along with leaving the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt without the assistance of self-incrimination has become standard practice for all mobsters, and especially those with most to lose, the bosses. Another factor in that strategy has been that most often the cases were slam-dunks anyway, so little was to be gained but much more could be lost by being tripped-up by cross examination.

What makes a difference in the Family Secrets trial (the name originating from the FBI code name for the investigation) as far as Lombardo is concerned is twofold. First, most of the evidence against him is historical; he had previously been found guilty in two federal trials in the 1980s and duly served his time.

Secondly, much of the accusations against him in the Family Secrets case have been circumstantial and/or based on anecdotal accounts and rumor bordering at times on folklore. Witnesses, mostly criminals or associates, and most with an axe to grind, expressed mostly hearsay reports of his alleged culpability in this or that, or of him being the fiendish mastermind behind the Outfit.

There has barely been any of the ‘hard evidence’ normally required for murder trials, indeed, one of the most emotive accusations - that by the former wife of Daniel Seifert, who was shot to death in 1974 - was starkly undermined by the very star witness widely expected to confirm Lombardo’s guilt: ‘made’ Outfit member, Nicholas Calabrese.

It had long been speculated that Lombardo was one of the masked killers of Daniel Seifert, and the former Mrs. Seifert gave evidence earlier in the trial that she believed the man who delivered the coup de grace was Lombardo, based on her personal familiarity with him as a family friend at the time – citing his height and build, and in particular that he was ‘light on his feet’, remarking that Joseph Lombardo had once been a boxer and was very nimble on his feet also.

Calabrese, however, revealed his knowledge to be that Joseph (Joey) Hansen, a now deceased member of Tony Spilotro’s street crew of that time, fired the fatal shot. Allegedly, Seifert was killed because he was due to give evidence implicating Lombardo and Spilotro (also alleged to have been among the masked killers) in an impending fraud trial; hence a Spilotro henchman being the culprit would have as much logic as any other scenario. The defense also called a former FBI agent who told how Mrs. Seifert offered no such information at any time during the original investigation.

It can only be a matter of speculation whether Rick Halprin, Lombardo’s wily and respected attorney, announced that he was putting his client on the stand as a sign of confidence or of desperation, but it was a considerably risky gambit.

The current trial, it can be argued, has produced little beyond material already used in the 1980s trials, for which Mr. Lombardo has already paid his debt. Since then he has taken the eccentrically bizarre step (he’s not called the clown for nothing) upon his release in 1992 of publicly renouncing any involvement in organized crime via an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune. Since then, he has been accused of no further crimes, regardless of the widespread belief in some quarters that he is the clandestine Eminence Grise of the Outfit.

Suspicion, anecdote and accusation, and especially hearsay, are not usually regarded as evidence, and few of these charges would seem likely to hold water anywhere beyond the U.S. Title 18, chapter 96, so-called RICO statutes where the establishment of a criminal enterprise is the primary requirement. Under this amorphous definition, the alleged collective crimes required to be proven to qualify the enterprise often seem to suffer from a lower, hazier level of scrutiny, a kind of sub-prime justice.

In other words, if you throw enough shocking photographs of disfigured remains, and the tawdry usual suspects point fingers alleging that this man is the Outfit’s Keyser Soze, and that guy cut people’s throats (true though any of it might be), combined with endless tales of beaten up bookies, extortion, killings, bombings and mayhem in general, and all the names can be joined up from time to time, then bundle it all up together, the mud sticks in the minds of juries, without each component being tried to the normally necessary standards of proof as when a single charge.

While the prosecution scored no direct hits on Lombardo (in fact the prosecution have signally failed to live up to the pre-trial ballyhoo and nail anything of substance to its primary target) with its opening evidence, significant circumstantial mud was spattered and Lombardo’s team have decided he is best placed to rid himself of it. A likely tactic always was for him to deny any association with any criminal enterprise since his release in 1992, something the cold record might seem to support, and that to penalize him for past misdeeds would be tantamount to double jeopardy. And any conclusion implied that he is still involved simply because he discussed the Spilotro killings while in the dentist’s chair of their brother, whom he had known for decades, seemed tenuous, to say the least, and even a finger print on a document might not necessarily construe that he pulled a trigger, at least not this time.

The greatest danger for defendants with a long past of criminal association taking the stand is that whatever they say opens the door for the prosecution to dissect all that they utter, and any topic introduced means that topic is then fair game. And if a defendant’s history is long enough, and Lombardo is now 78 years old, that is a lot of topics to avoid and protect from slip-up and errors brought about by the intense probing, and preparation, of the prosecutors. And Lombardo could be certain that those U.S. Attorneys did not get the last couple of weekends off.

His gambit was highly risky, but time and the jury will tell if it paid off. On the other hand, the U.S. attorney’s case has looked sadly anemic in places, and perhaps Lombardo and Halprin did not think there was too much to worry about, so could afford to try to swing the jury to thinking he is a kindly, humorous retired senior citizen, who has left a regrettable past far behind. He’s not called the clown for nothing. But Lombardo better than most should appreciate what the word gambit really means, as its roots, like his own, are Italian. It derives from Gambetto, and means ‘tripping up’ and that can hobble you for life.

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