Philadelphia mob boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino beat racketeering charges on February 20 thanks to a hung jury. The trial was a part of 2016’s much-ballyhooed East Coast La Cosa Nostra indictment. Merlino's mistrial is a major blow to federal prosecutors in Manhattan. In recent years, the feds have suffered numerous setbacks, from the Gotti mistrials to the not guilty verdict in the Lufthansa heist trial to the lack of cooperation from New York City mobsters like Genovese family capo, Pasquale "Patsy" Parrello. Merlino was something of their last man standing. He was unbowed and proud, but adamant that he’d left the Mafia behind after his last prison stint.
Despite heart problems, cheating accusations, jury tampering allegations, and even being called a “fucking shitbag” and “cocksucker” by mob canary John "JR" Rubeo, Merlino has emerged victorious, at least for the moment. VICE talked to three Mafia experts, Scott M. Deitche, the author of Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey; Christian Cipollini, author of Murder Inc. Mysteries of the Mob’s Most Deadly Hit Squad; and Scott Burnstein, who penned Mafia Prince: Inside America's Most Violent Crime Family and the Bloody Fall of La Cosa Nostra to find out what the Merlino verdict means in the grand scheme of things.
VICE: What happened to the government’s case against Merlino?
Scott M. Deitche: For what it's worth, at least in my opinion, the case seemed weak from the start. It probably should have never gone to trial. You’re already seeing a big move to plea deals before trial, this case being a prime example, where all the other defendants in the so-called enterprise plead out. But in reality, there was very little Joey Merlino information in the case from the time I sat in on the trial. Most of the major players in what the prosecutor described as the “cream scheme”—a great name for an indie rock band… or a porno—seemed to be the ones on the witness stand. I think [the feds] are going to start reconsidering blanket reliance on government witnesses.
Christian Cipollini: Witness testimony, particularly [of] material witnesses, logically seems to be the best for convincing a jury. But in reality, it’s not that reliable. Mob cases have proved, time and time again—Gotti, Merlino, go all the way back to mobsters like Legs Diamond—you just never know what the result will be. Those who “turn” are not always looked on as “reliable” by juries. Trial by jury is a phenomenon more unpredictable than the spin of a roulette wheel.
Merlino took a shot confidently and, in a way, beat the odds this time. Generally, though, jury trials often prove the old cliché that “truth is stranger than fiction.” You just never know the outcome on what a jury will decide when the figurative dice are rolled. Merlino's mistrial demonstrates how no case— repeat—no case is ever cut and dry, open and shut. The Mafia still wins a few. Joey Merlino, love him or loathe him, you have to admit the guy has stainless steel cajones.
Scott Burnstein: There never really was an "East Coast LCN [La Cosa Nostra]” enterprise per se to begin with. That was a term created by the government to describe the indictment brought in 2016, which demonstrated a loose relationship between some of the New York mob families and an alleged tie between the Genovese family and Philly mob boss Joey Merlino, specifically. The government’s case against Merlino didn't find traction in the trial because it relied on witnesses with credibility issues, shoddy work from the FBI in the handling of the case's star witness (Genovese associate John “JR” Rubeo), and limited surveillance evidence actually linking him to the conspiracies he was indicted for. Merlino is the only co-defendant in the case to have essentially beat the rap due to the case against him being the worst built. A lot of the others were caught red-handed. Joey was not and had an excellent attorney in Eddie Jacobs, who brilliantly took apart the witnesses who testified against him with pinpoint precision on cross[-examination].
Is Merlino the brashest mobster since John Gotti?
Cipollini: Joey Merlino is definitely one of, if not the most outspoken, infamous you could say, of the contemporary American Mafia or what remains of it. Merlino, similar to John Gotti, is a polarizing figure. He's admired by some, despised by others—but either way, he’s a wiseguy who won’t be forgotten anytime soon. The authorities kept tabs on Merlino since he exited prison in 2011, and they believed he was part of a criminal group made up of other aging or supposedly retired mobsters who were dubbed the East Coast La Cosa Nostra. This group was accused of running several rackets, but a healthcare scam is the main one.
Burnstein: Joey Merlino is the most brash and media-friendly Mafia don since John Gotti, without a doubt. He's also by far the luckiest gangster in recent memory, having dodged numerous murder attempts and murder indictments over the past 25 years. Like Gotti, Joey's got immense swagger, enjoys the spotlight, and gets off on snubbing his nose at the government in its dogged quest to bring him and his reign down, which up until now has encountered little headway. We didn't really learn anything new about Joey at this trial. However, it did reaffirm a lot of what we already knew: He's larger than life in a lot of ways, a true gangland character (wanting to talk more about the Eagles Super Bowl chances than his case with the media) in an era where they don't much exist, and a real riverboat gambler of a defendant (unwilling to cop a plea, and someone who plays well in front of a jury).
Deitche: Since he was released from prison in 2011, he doesn’t court notoriety as much as he used to, even considering his restaurant venture, Merlino’s in Boca [Raton, Florida], closed and reopened as Frank and Dino’s. Maybe in his youth he was. Certainly, he was the face of the mob to Philly TV viewers for a while in the 1990s. For the newspapers in New York and Philly, the salacious revelation that Merlino had a girlfriend in Florida was a big story for a couple days. The fact that his wife was in the courtroom when that tidbit came out certainly amplified it.
What does this hung jury mean in the big scheme of things?
Burnstein: I think it shows that cooperators need to be vetted more judiciously and with more discretion if the government expects to rely solely on them for convictions. Credibility is the issue. Dishonesty is hard to cover up on the stand. If the person the jury is supposed to rely on for veracity, in terms of convicting somebody based on their testimony, can be exposed as a perpetual liar, it doesn't bode well for the potential of success. The result of the Merlino trial means the case against him was weak. The government in New York has to now decide in the next few weeks if they intend on retrying him. My gut tells me they won't, but my sources in law enforcement tell me another case out of Philly naming him as the lead defendant might be on the horizon.
Deitche: I don’t think it means much in the overall scheme of the mob. With the mob much less prevalent these days, you won’t see so many high-profile cases anymore. This may really be one of the last "name" mob trials. From a hypothetical underworld perspective, with Merlino back on the street, it may keep things calm in Philly, assuming that Merlino is the boss as the feds tried to portray. Or he could really be done with it all, in which case the outcome will have no bearing on the hierarchy in South Philly.
Cipollini: The hung jury situation is better for Merlino and his legal team than a guilty verdict, but it doesn’t mean the government can’t request a retrial at some point. The government will absolutely keep Joey Merlino under surveillance from here on out. The other indicted individuals all pled guilty, so the feds are probably chomping at the bit to nail Joey. The government will likely seek a retrial—if they believe they can actually win. Otherwise, perhaps they’ll dog Joey until gathering enough evidence to try him on something else. I’m pretty sure his mistrial stings the prosecution. Also, and this is the part that stings the law-abiding public, every time an organized crime group gets indicted, we find out about yet another sneaky fraud or scam that we probably had no idea about prior.
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