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Meet the $101.7 million dream team

After 30-year fight, lawyers bask in victory

They beat the government, winning a landmark $101.7 million judgment last week on behalf of four men who were framed for a 1965 gangland murder in Chelsea and spent decades in prison.

It was a long, grueling battle for the team of more than a dozen lawyers, before they proved the FBI was to blame for the injustice done to Joseph Salvati and Peter J. Limone, who grew old behind bars, and Louis Greco and Henry Tameleo, who died in prison before being exonerated.

Medford lawyer Victor J. Garo said he took Salvati's case after meeting with him in prison on a dreary, rainy day 30 years ago.

"He was the forgotten guy," said Garo.

Salvati's family believed in his innocence, Garo said, but he'd lost all appeals and had no money for lawyers.

"They gave me a retainer at the beginning, I think it was $2,500, then I found out they didn't have any money and had borrowed it from family and relatives, so I gave it back."

For the next three decades, Garo refused to take any money from the Salvatis as he dug up secret evidence, found new witnesses, won Salvati's release in 1997, stood by his side as they testified before Congress, and ultimately cleared his name.

By the time Juliane Balliro joined the legal team preparing a civil suit on behalf of the Limone family and Tameleo's estate in 2001, she was a high-powered trial attorney and Limone had just been freed from prison after 33 years.

The case brought back childhood memories.

Her father, prominent criminal defense attorney Joseph J. Balliro, represented Tameleo, reputed consigliere of the New England Mafia, in the 1968 trial that ended with the wrongful conviction of the four men for the slaying of small-time hoodlum Edward "Teddy" Deegan.

"I remember my father coming home . . . the conversation about how terrible this is and the shock that every body was in," said Juliane Balliro, recounting her father's reaction when the men were convicted and three of them were sentenced to die in the electric chair. Their sentences were later reduced to life in prison.

Earlier that year, Juliane Balliro, then a sixth-grader in Melrose, was summoned to the principal's office, along with her sister, for a police escort home because someone had telephoned a threat to her mother while her father was in court giving closing arguments in another case against Tameleo.

The caller warned, "We know where your daughters go to school and we're going to get them," Juliane Balliro recalled.

Her family suspected the call was from Joseph "The Animal" Barboza, a notorious hitman who had been recruited by the FBI to testify against local Mafia leaders that year, and had faced blistering cross-examination from her father, she said.

On Thursday, US District Judge Nancy Gertner, found the FBI was responsible for framing Tameleo, Limone, Salvati, and Greco because the bureau knew Barboza was lying when he implicated them in Deegan's murder. She found the FBI withheld critical evidence from state prosecutors before, during, and after the 1968 trial -- evidence that could have cleared them.

Joseph Balliro's pride in his daughter's achievement, helping prove a truth he had long believed, carried a personal reward for him. "It somehow feels like what she did was right a wrong," he said.

The lawyers who won last week's judgment, included Suffolk University Law School professor Michael Avery, who specializes in police misconduct cases and wrote a book on the subject; Austin J. McGuigan, former chief state's attorney for Connecticut and his partner Joseph B. Burns; Boston civil rights lawyer Howard Friedman; Boston litigators Richard D. Bickelman, William T. Koski, and Daniel R. Deutsch; and Michael Rachlis and Edwin Durham of Chicago. Another lawyer, John Cavicchi, represented Greco for years pro bono and after Greco died, helped free Limone, before leaving the case.

"I have done a lot of very bad police brutality and wrongful conviction cases, but this was by far the worst case I had ever seen," said Avery, who teaches constitutional law and rules of evidence and was nicknamed "The Professor" by Salvati and Limone during the trial.

A state judge overturned the convictions of Limone and Salvati in January 2001 after the discovery of secret FBI documents that had never been turned over during their 1968 trial.

The documents showed the FBI knew that Barboza may have falsely implicated the four men in Deegan's slaying, while protecting one of the true killers, Vincent "Jimmy the Bear" Flemmi, who was an FBI informant.

Tameleo died in prison in 1985 after serving 18 years and Greco died in 1995 having served 28 years.

Avery, who gave up a Boston law practice specializing in civil rights nine years ago to teach full time, said he was recruited by Koski to represent the Limones and Tameleos in the civil case and agreed because "this is too momentous, too important, not to get involved."

With no law practice to support him in a case of "epic scale," Avery said he convinced Juliane Balliro to team up with him. Later, when she became a partner in the law firm WolfBlock, she brought in her associate, Christine M. Griffin, and an army of associates and paralegals that took charge of organizing thousands of documents dating to the 1960s.

"I think it's one of those once-in-a-career cases," said Juliane Balliro, with special significance, not just because of her father's connection to it, but because a terrible injustice had been done.

She said her father, who testified during the civil trial, was helpful in providing details about the 1968 trial that couldn't be gathered from records.

"I felt that we had a reasonable chance of winning the [1968] case because it was just based upon Barboza's testimony," said Joseph Balliro, but the trial hit a turning point when FBI agent Dennis Condon took the stand and vouched for Barboza's testimony.

Last week's victory took "great lawyering" said Garo, with each attorney contributing something, to prove the FBI liable for malicious prosecution, civil conspiracy and negligence.

Garo, who runs a one-man law firm in Medford, recruited McGuigan, a childhood friend, to help him represent the Salvatis. McGuigan had investigated organized crime and FBI wrongdoing as a prosecutor in Connecticut.

"If you've been in law enforcement and you've been a prosecutor, you get sort of outraged by things that happen to people who are innocent," McGuigan said. "There's nothing worse than thinking about convicting somebody who didn't do it."

McGuigan said he felt he owed it to the criminal justice system to commit to the case after learning Salvati was deliberately framed.

The other lawyers said McGuigan's contribution was invaluable because while working as a state prosecutor in Connecticut he had gathered overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing by former FBI agent H. Paul Rico, who had recruited Barboza to testify in the Deegan case.

Rico died in 2004 while awaiting trial on state murder charges in Oklahoma for allegedly plotting with his former informants, James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, to kill Roger Wheeler, owner of World Jai Alai, in 1981.

But the lawyers agreed that Garo, who had lived and breathed the case for 30 years, was the go-to guy about the facts of the case.

Garo said he promised Garo's dying mother in 1988 that he'd stay with Salvati's case until he walked him out of prison.

After persuading then-Governor William F. Weld to parole Salvati in 1997, Garo walked Salvati out of the Bay State Correctional Facility, then they went to lay red roses on Garo's mother's grave.

The story captured the attention of Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG, which is planning a movie about Salvati's life and Garo's crusade to exonerate him.

"Joe and I grew old together in this case, and all we've ever sought is justice," Garo said. "We'll be friends for life."

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.

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