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An Innocent Man Goes Free 33 Years After Conviction

[NY Times - 2/2/01] Thirty-three years, two months and five days.

That is how long Peter Limone sat in prison, pinned by a murder conviction that just last month, after many appeals, was finally vacated.

For four years of that prison time, Mr. Limone was on death row. His wife eked out a living by sewing, and visited him faithfully twice a week, convinced of his innocence. His four children grew up and began having children of their own; he had a heart attack. His middle years passed, they all passed, inside.

Now, at 66, Mr. Limone has been returned to his family, a circle so devoted that two dozen relatives and friends, from 2-year-old twin granddaughters to an 82-year-old brother, came to court this week to watch a judge confirm that Mr. Limone was officially free and the case against him officially dropped.

"It was disgusting, what was done to him," said William T. Koski, a lawyer for Mr. Limone, who plans to sue. "It should be chilling to everyone else."

What was done to Mr. Limone, who was a lounge manager and sometime numbers runner before he was imprisoned, became overwhelmingly clear only in recent weeks. He was effectively framed by a hit man cooperating with prosecutors and left to languish by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who apparently knew he was innocent but never spoke out.

And it emerged as an unexpected side effect of a major federal trial here involving two notorious old Boston mob leaders, Stephen Flemmi and James Bulger, known as Whitey.

In proceedings over several years here, Judge Mark L. Wolf of Federal District Court turned up instances of F.B.I. misdeeds so disturbing that they prompted an investigation by a Department of Justice task force and the establishment of guidelines on how agents interact with informants and what they must tell prosecutors about those relationships.

Testimony has painted some F.B.I. agents as corrupt, and others as so intent on cracking the Italian mob in New England a generation ago that they entered into relationships with "top echelon informants" and let them literally get away with murder.

As those proceedings unfolded, John Cavicchi kept an eye on them. Beginning in 1977, Mr. Cavicchi, a lawyer, had fought to clear a man named Louis Greco who had been convicted with Mr. Limone and four others in the 1965 murder of Edward Deegan, a small-time criminal. The main witness against them was Joseph Barboza, a hit man also known as The Animal, who later admitted that he had fabricated much of his testimony. He later died.

Mr. Cavicchi's efforts had failed; Mr. Greco died in prison in 1995. But the fight in Mr. Cavicchi remained alive. He knew some of the testimony in the proceedings before Judge Wolf touched on the Deegan murder, and he started to ask Judge Wolf for documents in the case, he said.

"It's just good fortune for everybody Judge Wolf got this case," Mr. Cavicchi said. Mr. Cavicchi, who now had Mr. Limone as his client, began building a new line of defense showing that Mr. Barboza, the hit man, had been offered many inducements by the authorities to testify as he did. The judge in the case, he planned to argue, should therefore not have given the jury the impression that Mr. Barboza was a disinterested party. He also requested that the Justice Department task force investigators examining the F.B.I. misdeeds look into the Deegan case.

Then came a pivotal moment. In December, the task force released explosive documents that had turned up in its search. The documents showed that informants had told the F.B.I. beforehand that Mr. Deegan would soon be killed and had said who would do it. An agency memorandum after the crime also listed the men who had apparently been involved. Neither list included Mr. Limone or Mr. Greco.

The implications were shocking. F.B.I. agents had good reason to believe that Mr. Limone, Mr. Greco and two others were not guilty, yet had done nothing to free them, apparently to protect their own informants, who were the real culprits. Also, it appeared they had done nothing to prevent the murder.

One of the two other men cleared by the F.B.I. papers was Joseph Salvati, who got out of prison in 1997 when the Massachusetts governor commuted his sentence; Mr. Salvati's lawyer, Victor Garo, had fought for him for more than 25 years. Like Mr. Limone, Mr. Salvati received word from prosecutors this week that they were dropping the case against him.

The veracity of the F.B.I. papers may be impossible to determine, said Ralph C. Martin II, the Suffolk County district attorney, "but I do know that the fair thing to do is to release these men from prison and acknowledge that a great wrong was committed."

Henry Tameleo, an additional defendant in the case whom the F.B.I. papers appear to clear, died in prison like Mr. Greco.

Harvey A. Silverglate, a Boston defense and civil liberties lawyer who has followed Mr. Limone's case, said the case showed once again that offering criminals leniency for implicating others is dangerously prone to producing wrongful convictions, as DNA evidence has proved in some recent cases.

"There are people on death row who've been convicted by these techniques," Mr. Silverglate said.

Mr. Koski said Mr. Limone's planned civil suit would seek to examine, among other things, who encouraged Mr. Barboza to lie, why and who else knew about it.

"This wasn't a mistake," Mr. Koski said. "This was an intentional abuse by participants in our system of justice."

The F.B.I. and federal prosecutors here declined to comment on Mr. Limone's case.

Mr. Limone does not specify what damages he will seek in the lawsuit. "What can they give you for 33 years?" he asked.

Still, he has a lottery-winner beam these days as he talks about the first-time joys of attending a birthday party for his 7-year-old granddaughter, Lia, and watching the Super Bowl with his sons. Asked if he was bitter, he said simply, "I'm happy to be home."

His wife, Olympia, promptly inserted: "He puts on a good show. He's very bitter."

Bitter and happy both, perhaps. "It's still like a dream," Mrs. Limone said. "Thank God he's here."

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.

[posted 2/2/01]


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