MIAMI - Just as former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. was about to be sentenced yesterday for the 1982 slaying of a Boston businessman in Florida, a judge put off deciding Connolly's fate until Jan. 15 to consider a defense motion that could lead to the case's dismissal.
But the judge did go forward with an emotional and sometimes explosive hearing.
Connolly, 68, lashed out at the government and accused a Boston prosecutor of sitting on evidence of his innocence while letting him "rot in jail."
The prosecutor countered that Connolly was a corrupt agent who helped long-time FBI informants James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi get away with murders and run a criminal enterprise that surpassed that of the Mafia.
"This case is eventually going to go away," defense lawyer Manuel L. Casabielle told the judge, contending that Connolly's conviction last month of second-degree murder with a gun for the slaying of John B. Callahan should not stand because the verdict was improper.
Connolly was found guilty of leaking information to Bulger and Flemmi, which prompted them to enlist a hit man friend to lure Callahan to Florida and kill him.
Before jurors began deliberations, they were instructed, over defense objection, that if they rejected charges against Connolly of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, they could consider the charge of second-degree murder with a gun.
But Casabielle said the statute of limitations had expired for a second-degree murder charge.
The prosecution said that the defense filed its motion too late and the verdict was valid. Circuit Judge Stanford Blake put off sentencing and apologized to Callahan's widow and two children, Connolly's family, and other supporters and detractors of the former agent who came from out of town to fill the courtroom yesterday.
But, he said, the issue was too important for him to make a swift ruling.
The judge said that if he decides the verdict was proper and goes forward with sentencing, he is required to sentence Connolly to a term of 30 years or as long as life in prison. Connolly would be required to serve a third of that time.
The prosecution urged the judge to sentence Connolly to life in prison, while the defense recommended 30 years.
Callahan's widow, Mary, said: "Justice and truth take time. We've waited this long, so we'll wait a few months longer, as long as justice is ahead."
Flemmi, who is serving a life sentence for 10 murders, testified that Connolly warned him and Bulger that the FBI was seeking Callahan for questioning and that he would probably implicate the gangsters in the 1981 slaying of World Jai Alai's owner, Roger Wheeler.
John Martorano, who is free after serving 12 years for killing 20 people, testified that he shot Callahan to death, at the urging of Bulger and Flemmi.
Callahan's body was found in the trunk of his car at Miami International Airport on Aug. 2, 1982.
"If the whole thing is just that he got convicted of second-degree instead of first-degree and the statute of limitations has run, that's a shame," said Callahan's 41-year-old son, Patrick.
Connolly, who did not testify during the eight-week trial, told the judge yesterday that he was an innocent man who was wrongly convicted of federal racketeering charges in Boston in 2002 and that he prays every night for exoneration while serving a 10-year prison term in that case.
"It's heartbreaking to hear what happened to your father and to your husband," said Connolly, turning to face the Callahans, seated in the front row of the courtroom. "I am here to tell you that I played no role in that, none," he said.
In a dramatic confrontation, Connolly and Fred Wyshak, a federal prosecutor from Boston who assisted in the Florida prosecution of Connolly, traded barbs.
The disgraced agent asserted that Flemmi told investigators in 2003 that former New England Mafia boss Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme had lied while testifying in Connolly's Boston trial, but that Wyshak waited years to report Flemmi's statements "in violation of his moral, legal, ethical obligations."
"You let me rot in a prison for five years when you know he exonerated me for everything Salemme said," Connolly shouted as he glared at the prosecutor.
But Wyshak said the information was turned over by another prosecutor - John Durham, who prosecuted Connolly in Boston - and pointed out that a judge and a federal appeals court denied Connolly's bid for a new trial.
Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.