PHILADELPHIA -- Jubilation filled the courtroom as reputed mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino and six co-defendants were acquitted of the most serious charges against them, including murder and attempted murder.
Merlino slapped his lawyer's back as his co-defendants, friends and family members gave the jury a standing ovation after the verdict was read Friday.
"I knew they weren't going to get in trouble for any of the murders because they're not like that. They're gamblers," Merlino's sister Natalie Merlino said.
Merlino, also acquitted of cocaine trafficking, was found guilty on 20 counts of extortion, illegal bookmaking and receiving stolen property. His co-defendants were found guilty of racketeering. Prosecutors said each of the seven men could face about seven years in prison at sentencing in December.
They had sat through nearly four months of questioning and arguments in a government case built largely on the testimony of four mob turncoats, including confessed mob boss Ralph Natale.
The Friday acquittals were a crushing blow to the FBI and U.S. Attorney's office, which had pursued Merlino and other alleged members of the Philadelphia La Cosa Nostra for 10 years.
U.S. Attorney Michael Levy tried to put the verdict in a positive light, noting the defendants were found guilty of participating in a racketeering conspiracy.
"Clearly, they are not the small-time thieves they portrayed themselves to be," Levy said. "The jury found that they are La Cosa Nostra."
The atmosphere was tense as the jury filed into the courtroom to deliver the verdict. For more than an hour, a clerk read each individual count, 324 in all, beginning with Merlino.
Friends and relatives cried, pumped their fists and cheered softly after Merlino was cleared of three murders and two attempted murders, the most serious charges in the indictment.
"Joey and I have been in tune throughout this case. We convinced the jury we had nothing to do with any of the violence," said Merlino's attorney, Edwin Jacobs Jr.
The prosecution took nearly three months to unspool its case, putting 50 witnesses on the stand and presenting 943 pieces of evidence. Defense lawyers, focusing only on the most serious charges, called 40 witnesses and sped through their case in six days.
They disputed the prosecution's theory that Merlino and Natale orchestrated a mob war for control of a multimillion-dollar gambling and loan-sharking empire.
Natale was the government's star witness and is the highest ranking American Mafia figure to become a government informant. He testified that he plotted with Merlino to take control of the Philadelphia-South Jersey mob in the early 1990s by hunting down and killing members of a rival faction.
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