A federal judge held the FBI "responsible for the framing of four innocent men" in a 1965 gangland murder in a landmark ruling yesterday and ordered the government to pay the men $101.7 million for the decades they spent in prison. The award is believed to be the largest of its kind nationally.
In a decision that was as dramatic as it was stern, US District Judge Nancy Gertner said from the bench that the FBI had deliberately withheld evidence that Peter J. Limone, Joseph Salvati, Louis Greco, and Henry Tameleo were innocent, and that the bureau helped cover up the injustice for decades as the men grew old behind bars and Tameleo and Greco died.
"FBI officials up the line allowed their employees to break laws, violate rules, and ruin lives, interrupted only with the occasional burst of applause," said Gertner, berating the FBI for giving commendations and bonuses to the agents who helped send the men to prison for the killing in Chelsea of Edward "Teddy" Deegan, a small-time hoodlum.
As Limone, 73, of Medford, and Salvati, 74, of the North End, sat stoically with their wives and children by their side in a courtroom packed with supporters, Gertner said it was only right to publicly vindicate the men, just as they had been convicted with much fanfare nearly 39 years ago to the day.
"It was a hard road," Limone said, recounting the 33 years and two months he spent in prison while his four young children grew into adults with children of their own. "They could never give me back what I lost. All the money in the world couldn't give me 33 years."
Salvati said after the proceeding that he only heard about half of the judge's 30-minute ruling from the bench, because he went numb.
"The anger is past," said Salvati, who spent 29 years and seven months in prison. "You get emotional. You think about the past, and you've got to go on with your life."
His wife, Marie, who struggled to raise the couple's four children while making trips to prison in vehicles that often broke down along the way, started crying outside the courthouse and told reporters: "It was never about the money. It was about proving his innocence. We got our good name back, for us and my children and my grandchildren."
She said they will use the money to send their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to college.
"By any measure, it is fair to call this record setting and unprecedented," said David Yas, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. "Rarely do we see verdicts approach $100 million, and for it to happen against the federal government makes it even more unusual."
The FBI has never apologized for the wrongful conviction of the four men. A spokeswoman for the FBI in Boston referred calls to the Justice Department yesterday.
A Justice Department spokesman, Charles Miller, declined to comment on the ruling or to say whether the government will appeal.
Lawyers for the four men and their families said it would probably be about two years before they collect any money, if the government appeals and loses.
Hours after Gertner issued her ruling, US Representative William D. Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat, mentioned the decision while questioning FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III during an FBI oversight hearing in Washington, D.C.
"This is the kind of behavior that really undermines the confidence of the people and the integrity of the FBI," Delahunt said.
Mueller characterized the case as a debacle, and added: "I would suggest to you that that is isolated. Day in and day out over the years, FBI agents have been undertaking investigations and done them lawfully."
In a telephone interview later, Delahunt said he plans to file a bill in the next few months that would impose criminal sanctions against federal authorities who fail to produce information or evidence that "implicates crimes of violence."
"We can no longer rely on guidelines," he said. "The failure to implement them and comply with them has been extraordinary."
Gertner ordered the government to pay $29 million to Salvati; $28 million to the estate of Greco, who died in prison in 1995 at age 78, having served 28 years; $26 million to Limone; and $13 million to the estate of Tameleo, who died in 1985 at age 84 after serving 18 years in prison.
She awarded $1.05 million each to Salvati's wife, Marie; Limone's wife, Olympia; and the estate of Tameleo's late wife, Giovannina "Jeannete," for loss of consortium and intentional infliction of emotional distress; and $50,000 to Greco's former wife, Roberta Werner, for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The nine children of Limone, Salvati, and Greco, and the estate of Greco's son, Louis Jr., who died in 1997, were each awarded $250,000 for loss of consortium and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Tameleo's son, Saverio "Edward" Tameleo, who was an adult when his father was convicted, was awarded $50,000 for emotional distress.
"Sadly when law enforcement perverts its mission, the criminal justice system does not easily self-correct," Gertner said. "We understand that our system makes mistakes; we have appeals to address them. But this case goes beyond mistakes, beyond unavoidable errors of a fallible system."
She added, "This case is about intentional misconduct, subornation of perjury, conspiracy, the framing of innocent men."
Later in the day, Gertner released a 223-page decision detailing her findings. She found that the government, which was sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act, was liable for the malicious prosecution of the four men, civil conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence.
After all four men were convicted July 31, 1968, of Deegan's slaying, Greco, Limone, and Tameleo were sentenced to die in the electric chair. Their sentences were later reduced to life in prison after Massachusetts abolished the death penalty. Salvati was sentenced to life in prison.
The discovery of secret FBI files that were never turned over during the men's trial prompted a state judge six years ago to overturn the murder convictions of Limone, who was immediately freed from prison, and Salvati, who was paroled in 1997.
The documents showed the FBI knew that the key witness in the case, notorious hit man Joseph "The Animal" Barboza, may have falsely implicated the four men while protecting one of Deegan's true killers, Vincent "Jimmy" Flemmi, who was an FBI informant.
Barboza had testified that Limone, a reputed leader in the Boston mob, had offered him $7,500 to kill Deegan and that Tameleo, the reputed consigliere of the New England Mafia, sanctioned the hit. He also testified that Greco and Salvati, who had prior run-ins with Barboza but weren't alleged to be members of the mob, were involved in ambushing Deegan.
Gertner, who heard testimony during 22 days of trial that ended in February and waded through thousands of documents, found there was overwhelming evidence that the FBI knew Barboza was lying, yet assured state prosecutors that his story "checked out."
Gertner found that the FBI protected Barboza and Flemmi because both provided valuable information against the mob and that the four wrongly convicted men were "collateral damage" in the war against La Cosa Nostra, more commonly known as the Mafia.
"To the FBI, the plaintiffs' lives, and those of their families, just did not matter," Gertner said.
During the civil trial before Gertner, Justice Department lawyers argued that the FBI had no duty to share internal documents with state prosecutors and insist ed the state was responsible for the prosecution of the four men.
The government argued that the FBI exercised its discretion when it offered Barboza leniency in exchange for his cooperation, then turned him over to state authorities, who independently prosecuted the four men.
But Gertner called the government's position absurd and said "the issue here is not discretion but abuse."
The judge said that the FBI developed Barboza as a witness and turned him over to the state, without disclosing the agency's documents that indicated he was lying.
Gertner also pointed out that two FBI agents testified at the trial, one of whom who vouched for the "purity" of testimony by Barboza.
Juliane Balliro, one of the lawyers representing the Limones and Tameleos, said the families will be required by law to pay taxes on the money. She said she believes Gertner's award was the largest single judgment against the FBI or any other federal or state law enforcement agency for wrongful imprisonment.
But "these facts are so outrageous, their conduct was so egregious that it required a level of damages that was commensurate with the facts," she said.
Medford lawyer Victor J. Garo, who represents Salvati and was credited by Gertner with helping expose the FBI's wrongdoing, said, "This is the worst I have ever seen law enforcement officials behave, and this is the clearest I've ever seen them get caught at what they were doing."
Greco's son, Edward, now 50 and living in a New Orleans nursing home while recovering from lung cancer, said by phone that his father, a decorated World War II veteran, "loved his country, and he always thought this would come out before he died.
"I'm just so glad that he was vindicated," he said.
Greco, whose life spiraled downhill after his father went to prison when he was 10 and his mother sank into a depression and abandoned him, said that if he ever collects the money awarded to him, he would like to use it to start a reading program for minority children in New Orleans.
Greco's former wife, Roberta Werner, reached by phone in Florida, said: "It's just bittersweet for me because Louie isn't here. . . . He had to die a horrible death in there not knowing if the truth was ever going to come out."
Tameleo's son, Saverio "Edward" Tamelo, was too ill to make the trip to court yesterday from the North Providence nursing home where he lives, but his grandson, Henry, came with his wife and son.
"I used to go visit my grandfather" in prison," Henry Tameleo said.
"He used to say, 'This is wrong. I don't understand.' And all he did was keep fighting and fighting. . . . Most of the family is not here to see this and hear this."
Just after Gertner left the bench, and the wrongly convicted men hugged their families and lawyers, Limone walked over to shake Tameleo's hand and, smiling broadly, said, "I told your grandfather we'd beat them."