Monday, September 03, 2007

'He would shoot you in the head over a cold ravioli'

For jurors who have sat through a summer in Courtroom 2525 listening to testimony from more than 100 witnesses, the contrast couldn't have been starker on Wednesday.

The defense attorney, wearing a hypnotic pink-and-black checkered tie, reveled in his role as the mob lawyer, talking loudly about constitutional rights and the American Revolution. He blasted the government's case, contending the FBI could stand for "Forever Bothering Italians" and calling the prosecution's star witness a bald-faced liar who "would shoot you in the head over a cold ravioli."

And then there was the federal prosecutor, standing at the lectern in a dark, conservative suit as he spoke with barely controlled anger. He told the jury that the 18 gangland slayings at the heart of the case stretched over 40 years and illustrated the cruelty of a ruthless Outfit that "survived and prospered at the expense of who knows how many victims."

The defense lawyer, Joseph Lopez, ripped star witness Nicholas Calabrese as a crybaby and "a walking piece of deception." Not so, said the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Mitchell Mars, who defended Calabrese as a product of the city's underworld, an Outfit soldier who had been forthright about "a very horrible life."

The dueling closing arguments in the Family Secrets conspiracy trial came as the jury is set to begin deliberations as soon as Thursday.

Mars, the longtime chief of the organized-crime unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, will wrap up his closing argument Thursday, and U.S. District Judge James Zagel, presiding over the landmark trial, will then instruct the jury.

Lopez represents Frank Calabrese Sr., an accused mob hit man alleged to have taken part in 13 of the murders. His brother, the star witness, and his son both cooperated against Calabrese, giving the case its Operation Family Secrets code name.

As he delivered his remarks, Lopez circled in front of the jury, looking up at his slick PowerPoint presentation, replete with cartoon characters, including a bawling infant. He urged the jury to remember that his client was cloaked in innocence "like Casper the Friendly Ghost" and that the jury system was the product of "bloodshed on American soil."

"Don't forget Valley Forge, where George Washington marched his troops on bleeding feet," he said.

The case amounts to a family feud, Lopez said, featuring Nicholas "the grim reaper" Calabrese and "I cannot do time" Frank Calabrese Jr., his client's wayward son. Jurors can keep or throw out whatever evidence they want, he said, piecing information together "just like putting something together from IKEA."

Lopez reminded jurors that from the witness stand, Nicholas Calabrese never looked them or his brother in the face, instead he stared straight ahead. Lopez assailed Nicholas Calabrese, saying he hated his brother and refused to take real responsibility for the 14 murders to which he admitted by trying to claim he was under his brother's thumb. When times got tough, Lopez said, Calabrese cried to "Mommy FBI."

On his turn, Mars credited Nicholas Calabrese for lifting the veil on many of the 18 murders, giving closure to victims' families and defended his credibility. "The issue is not whether you like Nicholas Calabrese," the prosecutor said. "That's not why we're here. The issue is whether you believe him."

Mars told jurors to remember Calabrese's demeanor on the witness stand, saying he wasn't reading off a prepared script.

Calabrese provided his best memory, Mars said, unlike Frank Calabrese Sr. or Joey "the Clown" Lombardo, who took the stand in their own defense and told jurors that they only acted like mobsters.

Frank Calabrese Sr. "told nothing but lies," Mars said, citing testimony in which he claimed he admitted to some murders to impress his son, who, unbeknownst to him, wore a wire for the government as the two talked in prison.

When he testified in July, Nicholas Calabrese was subjected to rigorous questioning by "some of the best cross-examiners in town," Mars said. "They did not catch him in a lie, much to their chagrin."

Frank Calabrese Sr. was captured on hours of recordings discussing seven of the murders in the case and describing events that were unknown to the public, Mars said. That should be a truth-detector when it comes to Nicholas Calabrese's account and whether he was just building a story around things he had heard, he said.

In fact, Mars said, Nicholas Calabrese has never heard the undercover tapes to this day. It would have to be "by the purest of coincidences that [each brother] lied in exactly the same way," he said.

Lopez attacked the government case for presenting no physical evidence, no DNA evidence linking his client to any murder and no fibers, hairs or fingerprints.

Both brothers are simply boasting for their own reasons, Lopez said.

Frank Calabrese Sr. told the truth when he testified that he was just in the business of street loans and had a mobbed-up partner, Lopez said. Calabrese had a job that put money into the hands of those involved in organized crime, he said, and they would not risk involving him in violence. "You don't put the earner out on the street to catch the arrow," he said.

The jury should blame Frank Calabrese Jr. for dragging his father into damaging conversations, Lopez maintained. The son asked the father questions about life in the Outfit, Lopez said, and Frank Calabrese Sr. didn't want to look like a chump by denying it. The tapes are simply two men trying to "out B.S." each other, he said.

Two other defense closing arguments also took place Wednesday.

Attorney Paul Wagner, who represents reputed mob figure Paul "the Indian" Schiro, said a lying Nicholas Calabrese provided the main evidence against his client, too, fingering him for killing witness Emil Vaci in Phoenix in 1986. Ralph Meczyk the lawyer for former Chicago police officer Anthony "Twan" Doyle, said his client was only helping a friend when he gave police information to Frank Calabrese Sr. But Lopez and Mars couldn't even agree on whether the criminal enterprise known as the Outfit, the basis for the key racketeering charge, existed in many of the years outlined in the case.

Mars said Nicholas Calabrese acted—and killed—on behalf of that enterprise. Lopez called it a myth and said the only enterprise he is aware of was "the Starship Enterprise."

Even the infamous "Last Supper photo" of reputed mob leaders sitting around a table in an Italian restaurant depicted just a bunch of "grumpy old men drinking Corvo," Lopez said. "The enterprise died with them on the last clam," he said.

Thanks to Jeff Coen

LinenSource, Inc.

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