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MIAMI (Reuters) - A Florida appeals court on Wednesday overturned the 2008 murder conviction of John Connolly, a former FBI agent linked to mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger.
The 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami ruled that Connolly was improperly convicted of second-degree murder for his role in a 1982 mob hit tied to Bulger. Connolly was sentenced to 40 years in prison in the Miami slaying of John Callahan, a Boston businessman and president of World Jai-Alai, a sports betting operation.
"It's a pleasant surprise to see a light at the end of the tunnel, it's been a long haul," said James McDonald, Connolly's lawyer. "John has been the fall guy as far I'm concerned."
McDonald said Connolly has no other outstanding charges and could be freed soon pending further appeals.
Prosecutors were studying the ruling and had no immediate comment, a spokesman for the Miami State Attorney's office said.
In a 72-page ruling an appeals court panel of judges voted 2-1 to vacate Connolly's second-degree murder conviction after it determined that the trial judge improperly allowed prosecutors to enhance the murder charge with a firearm allegation.
The trial jury found Connolly not guilty of first-degree murder but convicted him on a lesser charge of second-degree murder. Without the addition of the firearm allegation Connolly's second-degree murder conviction would have been barred by the statute of limitation, the appeals court found.
The second-degree murder charge carried a statute of limitation of four years. But the charge of second-degree murder with a firearm reclassified the crime to a life felony, with no statute of limitations.
Connolly did not personally witness the murder, and two of the judges found that the charge could only have been reclassified if he had possessed a gun while the killing took place.
In a 46-page dissenting opinion, Judge Leslie Rothenberg said the law allows for reclassification "if the defendant carries any firearm at any time during commission of the felony."
Connolly, a veteran FBI agent who retired in 1990, recruited Bulger as a mob informant. In 2005 he was indicted on murder charges in Florida, accused of leaking information to Bulger and another mob boss that led to the killing of Callahan.
In July 1982 a hit man picked up Callahan at the Fort Lauderdale Airport and shot him in the back of the head, before stuffing him into the trunk of a car which he left at Miami International Airport, according to court documents.
Connolly proclaimed his innocence; he had lost a previous appeal to overturn the murder conviction in 2011.
Bulger, 84, was sentenced in November by a federal judge in Boston to two life terms for 11 murders, as well as racketeering, extortion and drug dealing, while he ran Boston's Winter Hill crime gang in the 1970s and 1980s.
The case is John J. Connolly Jr vs. The State of Florida, 3rd District Court of Appeal, No. 3D09-280.
Additional reporting by Kevin Gray and Zachary Fagenson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Leslie Adler and Matthew Lewis