Judge throws out mobster's sentence
Says prosecutor withheld evidence
US District Judge Mark L. Wolf, continuing his crusade against government misconduct in a series of blockbuster mob prosecutions, threw out the prison sentence of convicted Boston Mafia captain Vincent Ferrara yesterday, after concluding that a prosecutor withheld key evidence during plea negotiations in the case.
Ferrara pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges in 1992.
But he also admitted then to a 1985 murder he probably didn't commit, Wolf found, because an assistant US attorney failed to disclose evidence that would have helped exonerate him of the slaying.
Wolf's decision means that Ferrara, a Boston College-educated former mob capo who has spent more than 15 years in prison, could walk free next month.
''This is the latest -- and hopefully the last -- in a series of related cases that have demonstrated extraordinary misconduct by the Department of Justice in its investigation and prosecution of members of the Patriarca family of La Cosa Nostra," Wolf wrote in a 124-page ruling.
Just as Ferrara and four other reputed mobsters were set to go to trial for racketeering in 1992, they pleaded guilty to various charges under deals that spared them even longer sentences and saved the government the expense of a trial.
Ferrara, 56, who could have faced life in prison if convicted of being involved in any of the three murders he was charged with as part of the case, was sentenced to 22 years after pleading guilty to racketeering, gambling, extortion, and ordering one murder: the 1985 North End slaying of a longtime friend, Vincent ''Jimmy" Limoli, who had allegedly crossed the Mafia.
Immediately after the plea, Ferrara told probation officials that he hadn't ordered Limoli's murder, but felt he was in an untenable position.
If he maintained his innocence at trial and a jury convicted him anyway, Ferrara figured, he would be sent to prison for life, according to Wolf's decision.
In his ruling, Wolf cited evidence that Assistant US Attorney Jeffrey Auerhahn did not tell Ferrara's lawyer that a key witness for the government had tried to recant his allegation that Ferrara ordered the slaying. The witness, Walter Jordan, came forward in 2002 to say that prosecutors and investigators coerced him into sticking to his story.
''The government's misconduct utterly undermines the court's confidence in the outcome of Ferrara's case," Wolf wrote. ''Ferrara may well be innocent of the Limoli murder charges."
Citing the same withholding of evidence, Wolf, in October 2003, slashed the sentence of Pasquale ''Patsy" Barone, convicted of plotting with Ferrara to kill Limoli, from life in prison to 10 years, resulting in his release.
Wolf scheduled a May 3 resentencing date for Ferrara, who is in a federal prison in Canaan, Pa.
US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said yesterday that he had not decided whether to appeal Wolf's decision to throw out the original sentence.
''Obviously these are serious conclusions reached by the court, and we're going to review the findings," he said.
Sullivan added that it was likely that his office will ''strongly disagree" with some of Wolf's conclusions.
As for Auerhahn, Sullivan said that after the allegations of misconduct arose in 2003, they were referred to the Office of Professional Responsibility in the US Department of Justice, which launched its own investigation.
Sullivan wouldn't comment yesterday on whether that investigation was still active or had reached any conclusions.
But he defended Auerhahn, who was recently reassigned from organized crime cases to the antiterrorism squad.
''He's a career prosecutor who's dedicated his career to public service," Sullivan said.
Wolf said in his decision that if Ferrara's guilty plea had not included Limoli's murder, Ferrara probably would have been released between July 2003 and last February. Until yesterday, Ferrara's projected release date was Jan. 12, 2009.
Ferrara's lawyer, Martin G. Weinberg, said that he broke the news of Wolf's decision to Ferrara yesterday and that Ferrara was ''profoundly grateful" that the judge recognized that he probably did not kill his friend.
''He was not responsible for the murder," said Weinberg, adding that Ferrara, a father of five, is ''anxious to return to his family and looking forward to an end of this decade-and-a-half odyssey through the very difficult Bureau of Prisons system."
Ferrara, formerly of Revere, has been in custody since November 1989, when he was arrested after being caught on tape in two high-profile bugging operations: the October 1989 Mafia induction ceremony in Medford, where 21 mobsters from around New England gathered to make new members, and a 1987 shakedown of two elderly Boston bookies.
Ferrara had also been one of three renegade capos in the Boston mob linked to a 1989 plot to seize control of the New England mob from boss Raymond ''Junior" Patriarca, which led to the murder of the family underboss, William Grasso, and the wounding of rising leader Francis ''Cadillac Frank" Salemme.
A series of prosecutions of Ferrara, Patriarca, Salemme, James ''Whitey" Bulger, Stephen ''The Rifleman" Flemmi, and others during the 1990s landed in Wolf's courtroom and put him at the center of a heated battled with both FBI agents and federal prosecutors over their handling of evidence and informants in the high-profile cases.
Wolf, for example, held numerous hearings on whether the government had failed to disclose information to another judge who had approved the FBI bugging of the Medford induction ceremony.
Then, after Bulger, Flemmi, and Salemme were indicted on federal racketeering charges in 1995, it was Wolf who ordered the government to disclose that Bulger and Flemmi were longtime FBI informants.
He held hearings in 1998 that exposed the corrupt relationship of some FBI officials with Bulger and Flemmi, who were protected from prosecution of their own crimes because they were informants on local Mafia leaders.
In addition to the mob proceedings, Wolf threw out a case three years ago against an alleged drug dealer because of what he called a pattern of ''extreme misconduct" by prosecutors, who he said had withheld evidence in the case.