The case against reputed mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and six codefendants should not be decided based on who the government says they are, Ligambi's lawyer argued Thursday, but rather on what they've done.
And, Edwin Jacobs Jr. told a federal jury, neither Ligambi nor any of the other defendants actually did anything.
"It's not a crime to be associated with or to be a member of the Mafia," Jacobs said in his opening statement as the long-awaited mob racketeering conspiracy trial got under way in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
"In America, you can be a member of almost anything," he said. "It's not about being a member. It's about what you do."
The "real charges" in the case "wouldn't support an episode of The Sopranos," Jacobs said.
It was one of two references that the veteran defense lawyer made to the popular HBO television series. At another point, he threw in The Godfather, contending that the Philadelphia mob is so ineffective and nonviolent "that Tony Soprano and Don Corleone would laugh at us."
The prosecution contends, however, that victims targeted in mob extortions and shakedowns ordered by Ligambi found nothing to laugh about.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Labor, one of the prosecutors, told the jury that Ligambi, 73, and his codefendants were active members of a criminal enterprise. That enterprise, Labor said, relied on the violent reputation of the Philadelphia mob to instill fear and intimidate underworld targets.
And, playing off the defense's oft-stated position that the current case does not include any of the murder and attempted-murder charges that marked earlier mob trials, Labor said that "a dead man" can't make an extortion payment.
"But a terrified man can," he added.
Those were the two pictures of the Philadelphia branch of La Cosa Nostra offered to the jury in a trial that is expected to last eight to 12 weeks.
The first witness, an alleged extortion victim, is scheduled to take the stand when the trial resumes Friday morning before U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno.
Labor sprinkled several potentially incriminating comments from secretly recorded conversations into his opening. The government is expected to play dozens of taped conversations picked up on wiretaps and from body wires worn by cooperating witnesses.
"I got two gorillas, gonna chop him up," he quoted defendant Anthony Staino as saying in a discussion about a reluctant debt payer.
"Right now I feel like putting a bullet in your head," defendant Garry Battaglini told another extortion target, Labor said.
But defense lawyers argued that the comments, along with several others that will be played for the jury during the trial, were taken out of context and were part of a prosecution effort to make the case more than it actually was.
"We're not guilty," Jacobs said. "We're victims."
He and the other defense lawyers insisted that their clients had done nothing, but had been scapegoated by cooperating witnesses looking to make deals in order to diminish their own criminal problems.
Joseph Santaguida, the lawyer for mob underboss Joseph "Mousie" Massimino, called the allegations "a glorified gambling case" made to look like a racketeering enterprise.
And Gregory Pagano, Staino's lawyer, argued that FBI undercover agents who secretly recorded his client orchestrated their investigation.
"This is a very mundane case that the government is trying to glamorize," he said, adding that the agents' manipulation of events to target Staino was "a theatrical production second only to Hollywood."
Ligambi, Joseph Licata, Massimino, Staino, Battaglini, George Borgesi, and Damion Canalichio are charged with racketeering conspiracy built around allegations of bookmaking, loan-sharking, extortion, and the distribution of illegal video poker machines.
The charges stem from a lengthy FBI investigation that began in 1999.
Borgesi's lawyer, Paul J. Hetznecker, pointed out that his client was in a federal prison for most of the time period, serving a 14-year sentence for an earlier racketeering conviction.
Hetznecker said the key witness against his client, mob associate Louis "Bent Finger Lou" Monacello, used his association and friendship with Borgesi to cut a deal with the government.
Monacello was originally indicted with the other defendants, but pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate within a month of their arrests in May 2011.
"Lou Monacello had one thing in mind, and that was Lou Monacello," said Hetznecker, arguing that Monacello implicated Borgesi in a Delaware County bookmaking and loan-sharking operation that Borgesi knew nothing about.
The prosecution also intends to play several tapes made by Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli, a North Jersey mob figure who wore a body wire and recorded dozens of conversations for the FBI over a two-year period, beginning in 2009.
Stefanelli committed suicide earlier this year, but Robreno has ruled that his tapes are admissible as evidence.
One mob get-together, a five-hour session of eating, drinking, and conversation at a North Jersey restaurant, was taped by Stefanelli in May 2010. Labor described the session as "a meeting of the board of directors of organized crime."
Ligambi, Licata, and Staino were at that meeting, along with several members of the Gambino crime family. Transcripts already made public indicate that discussions included talk about the structure of the crime family and its history of violence.
But Christopher Warren, Licata's lawyer, challenged the relevance of those conversations, arguing that nothing that was said related to the racketeering conspiracy charges in the pending case.
He said Licata, 71, and Ligambi were "geriatric gangsters waxing nostalgically about things that happened long ago."
He then cited another Stefanelli tape, from a meeting in April 2011, in which Licata and three others talked about old times, including a debate that occurred in 1968 over who was the best performer: Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, or Elvis.
Licata capped that conversation, Warren said, by supporting another entertainer.
"Tom Jones," the mobster allegedly said. "Marone! Tom Jones was the best."