BOSTON (Reuters) - A federal judge ordered the U.S. government on Thursday to pay over $100 million in damages, saying four men were wrongfully convicted of murder after the FBI withheld evidence to protect a mob informant.
In a stunning reprimand to the FBI, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner in Boston found the bureau helped convict the four men of the March 1965 gangland murder of Edward “Teddy” Deegan, a crime they did not commit.
Peter Limone, Henry Tameleo and Louis Greco had been sentenced to die in the electric chair for the slaying, although their death sentences were lifted in 1972. Joe Salvati was sentenced to life in prison, where he spent three decades.
“This case goes beyond mistakes, beyond the unavoidable errors of a fallible system,” Gertner wrote in a 228-page decision, which called the FBI’s defense — that Massachusetts was to blame for an inadequate investigation — “absurd.”
“This case is about intentional misconduct, subornation of perjury, conspiracy, the framing of innocent men,” she wrote.
Salvati and Limone, along with survivors of Tameleo and Greco — who died in prison — sued the FBI five years ago charging wrongful conviction.
“I’m very happy for the judge’s decision. She corrected a wrong and made it right,” Limone, 73, told reporters. Referring to the $101.75 million in damages, he added, “All the money in the world couldn’t bring me back 33 years.”
Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department in Washington, declined to comment on the decision.
“We haven’t seen Judge Gertner’s order yet, so consequently we can’t even begin our review until such time as we see the order,” Miller said.
In their suit, Limone, Salvati and the family members of the other two men asserted that Vincent James Flemmi and Joseph “The Animal” Barboza, who were FBI informants, committed the murder. Flemmi and Barboza are now dead.
“Even though the FBI knew Barboza’s story was false, they encouraged him to testify in the Deegan murder trial,” Gertner wrote. “The killers they protected — Jimmy Flemmi, along with Barboza, and Jimmy’s brother, Stephen — were providing valuable information in the ‘war’ against the Italian Mafia.
Of Limone, Tameleo, Greco and Salvati, she wrote, “These four men were ‘collateral damage.’”
The decision comes as the FBI faces criticism from civil liberties groups for its use of national security letters in investigating terrorism suspects. An FBI audit this year found irregularities in its use of the letters, which allow the bureau to compel the release of private information such as phone or banking records without a court order.
Juliane Balliro, a Boston attorney who represented the Limone and Tameleo families, said she hoped the verdict would lead the FBI to give greater consideration of personal rights.
“We would like to think that this decision would resonate well into the future, that we would not see this kind of behavior again,” said Balliro, whose father, Joseph, was a defense attorney in the trial.