(CN) – Deliberately framing four men for a 1965 mob slaying will cost the U.S. government $700,000 in attorneys’ fees and court costs, on top of the $101.7 million awarded to the targets four years ago, a federal judge ruled.
The government treated the discovery phase of the group’s civil lawsuit as a “shell game” and “charade,” conducted “unquestionably in bad faith,” the court found.
Peter Limone, Enrico Tameleo, Louis Greco and Joseph Salvati were convicted for the 1965 murder of low-level tough Teddy Deegan in Chelsea, Mass. Three of the men received a death sentence, which was commuted to life when Massachusetts abolished the death penalty.
More than 30 years later, a Justice Department investigation into the Boston FBI uncovered a trove of secret documents that indicated that the group had been framed. Among other things, the reports showed that the informant whose story formed the basis of the prosecution had not named these men, but a different list of mobsters.
All four men’s convictions were vacated in 2001. Tameleo and Greco had already died in prison after serving 17 years and 27 years of their sentences, respectively. Salvati had been paroled about three years earlier after serving 30 years. Limone was the only one released in 2001, having served more than 33 years for the murder.
Limone, Salvati and the other men’s families filed suit, accusing the FBI of framing them for Deegan’s murder by failing to disclose exculpatory information and by covering up FBI misconduct.
Six years later, a jury awarded the plaintiffs nearly $102 million in damages, but they wanted more: attorneys’ fees and expenses for the case, based on the contention that the government acted in bad faith in their civil suit. The 1st Circuit upheld the award in 2009.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner granted the motion with respect to certain aspects of the government’s conduct, awarding over $700,000 to the plaintiffs.
“Secrecy – and secrecy gone awry – was central to the litigation,” Gertner wrote, before calling the government’s strategy a “charade.”
“The record revealed FBI agents ‘hiding the ball,’ not disclosing critical exculpatory information in the Deegan murder case for nearly forty years, information that would have exonerated the plaintiffs,” the Aug. 12 decision states.
Though the general “American rule” of litigation is that each party bears his own fees, the Equal Access to Justice Act provides exceptions for bad faith and willful disobedience of a court order.
Corrupt state prosecution is not attributable to the FBI, under 1st Circuit precedent, but, in this case, “there was a pattern of bad faith conduct that the First Circuit has not addressed, with which this court was intimately familiar – that is, the government’s conduct in connection with discovery,” Gertner wrote.
The judge slammed the government’s tactics from top to bottom, finding that “the problem with the government’s conduct went beyond mere delay. The government blocked access to the relevant documents – hiding behind specious procedural arguments, baseless motions to stay and ’emergency’ motions to defer production, culminating in a frivolous interlocutory appeal.”
While acknowledging the legitimate interest in protecting informants’ identities, Gertner said the government deliberately prevented the court from striking a fair “balance between the public interest in protecting the flow of information on the one hand, and an individual’s right to prepare his or her case, on the other.”
“They would not disclose – even in camera – until ordered to do so, why, for example, a deceased informant’s forty year old information deserved protection. They constantly refused to disclose the facts on which these claims of privilege were based,” the 28-page decision states.
It ultimately turned out that the FBI had even withheld unredacted discovery from the government attorneys on the Limone group’s civil case. Only the FBI general counsel had such access.
“Put simply, the lawyer in front of me lacked the authority to see the unredacted documents, and the lawyer who had that authority was not in front of me!” Gertner wrote.
The misconduct continued: “At other times the government insisted that the burden was on the plaintiffs to show why they needed the unredacted materials. The position made no sense. The plaintiffs could not show why they needed the documents until they knew what they were looking at,” the court reasoned (italics in original).
Given that “the government’s behavior from March 2006 to December 2006 was unquestionably in bad faith,” the plaintiffs’ counsels efforts to deal with that conduct “should not go uncompensated,” Gertner concluded.
She added that the plaintiffs’ counsel had billed a reasonable number of hours at a reasonable rate, signing off on a combined award of $716,745 to all counsel for fees and costs.