A big hurdle the feds have to overcome in their prosecution of legendary gangster John (Sonny) Franzese is getting jurors to look past whatever disdain they acquired for the mobster's spoiled-rotten, drug-addled, stool-pigeon son during his four days on the witness stand.
As distasteful as it may have been to listen to John Franzese Jr. spew out convoluted and conflicting reasons for his testimony against his father - and admit that he co-authored a tell-all book to cash in on his family lineage - the jury also heard Sonny acknowledge, from his own lips, his Mafia ties. Jurors also heard the legendary 93-year-old Mafioso implicate himself in a few crimes as well.
There wasn't a whole lot of evidence - there was no so-called "smoking gun" confession from the senior Franzese. But his turncoat son managed to capture some significant admissions for his FBI handlers while wearing a wire against his trusting dad five years ago. For example:
* In the earliest conversation that was played, a March 10, 2005 chat, Sonny discerned correctly that Bonanno wiseguys who had disappeared had not been killed, but were hiding out because "they must have got information" that the feds were about to make a bust. Sonny also told his son to closely monitor the shakeout from a major FBI takedown of Gambino mobsters: "It's not a question that we're interfering with their business," he said. "It's a question of their business could affect us...all five families could get locked up."
* That same day, talking about an overdue extortion payment that John Jr. failed to collect, Sonny said angrily, "I would have grabbed Carmine and told him, 'Look, you motherfucker rat bastard, go out there and get the money and bring it here. No twenty five (hundred). Five Thousand.' And if he don't give it to you, leave him on the floor."
* Sonny was also implicated in shakedowns of an Albertson, Long Island pizzeria and two Manhattan topless joints in tape recorded conversations in which John Jr. snared two codefendants - cohort Joseph (Joe D) DiGorga and second cousin John (Johnny Cap) Capolino.
During a discussion about the extortion of the Penthouse strip club in Manhattan, jurors also heard Sonny, along with Joe D, explain to John Jr. that successful shakedowns require finesse, not bravado. First, said DiGorga, they will float the idea that other mobsters were moving in on the club, "and let it hang there," and then let the club owner seek Sonny & Company out to pay them to keep the imaginary hoods away.
They completed their lesson about modern-day extortions almost like a longtime husband and wife team might, with Sonny completing DiGorga's thoughts and finishing his sentences.
"You can't go in and bang their brains out," said DiGorga.
"No," said Sonny.
"You gotta go in," began DiGorga.
"Slow," ended Sonny.
"You gotta make yourself be known, you gotta be nice and easy, you gotta take it easy," said DiGorga.
"Yeah," said Sonny.
The last taped conversation prosecutors played for the jury, one John Jr. recorded on October 28, 2005, led to his courtroom recollection of the "famous story" that Gang Land mentioned last week, about the time that Sonny put two guns in his pocket, kissed his wife goodbye, and went to see Crazy Joe Gallo, prepared for the worst back in the 1960s.
In that discussion, Sonny proclaimed: "Oh yeah, he shot, Joe killed guys, no questions about it," at the end of the excerpt that Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Brian Cogan ruled could be played for the jury, over the objection of defense lawyer Richard Lind, who has managed to keep all references to murders by Franzese out of the case.
Unable to get any mention of killings by Franzese into evidence, prosecutors Rachel Nash and Cristina Posa have gotten other murder talk into the case, but that conversation could turn out to be a double-edged sword for the feds. The main thrust of the discussion can easily be viewed as duplicitous efforts by John Jr. to snare his father for benefactors who have forked over more than $400,000 in support payments - most of it in medical expenses - to him between 2005 and 2010.
Jurors heard Sonny utter the "Joe killed guys" words at the end of a talk that began with John Jr. reporting how he had just seen and heard Albert Gallo, the lone-surviving Gallo brother, berate and abuse his nephew, Stevie, for no reason. Then jurors heard Sonny express support for Larry Gallo's beleaguered son, and disgust for his abusive uncle.
"I was embarrassed for him. It was horrible dad," said John. Jr.
"That's because he was a mutt, John."
"Naturally, John. What the hell, would I do that to you, John?"
Obviously, Sonny wouldn't. Even after learning that his son had fingered him in 2000 - the fourth of his five federal parole violations - Sonny took his HIV-positive son back into the fold. In return, John Jr. betrayed him again, and caused his father's fifth parole violation, and 18 more months behind bars, as well as the indictment for which he is now on trial.
There are more witnesses to come, and additional discussions in which Sonny was tape recorded in allegedly incriminating talk by turncoat mob associate Gaetano (Guy) Fatato.
When it's over, Brooklyn prosecutors hope Sonny ends up like Chicago mobster Frank Calabrese Sr. did three years ago when Frank Calabrese Jr. tape recorded his father and then took the stand against him at trial in the Windy City - convicted and behind bars for the rest of his life.
Tina Franzese, who hijacked Sonny's wheelchair last week and implored him to plead guilty and spare their son any further ordeal, was banished from the courtroom. She voiced support for her son this week as she watched the case proceed on a TV feed in a small unused office six floors beneath the courtroom, where her son admitted writing his unpublished work, "The John Franzese Story: Family, Crime, Drugs, Redemption."
"This is his redemption, and it's his father's too," she said, noting that for all the ways that Lind and lawyers Kenneth Paul and Raymond Colon had impugned her son's motives, they could not alter the tape-recorded words that just might sink her estranged husband.
Witnesses, she said, "They lie on those witness stands. My husband was framed [for a bank robbery conspiracy in 1967] everybody knows that. But did you notice that no one caught him (John Jr.) with a lie? It's all on tape."
That may be true. But there's one more hurdle the feds have to overcome. In order to find Sonny Franzese guilty, a panel of savvy New York jurors will have to be willing to impose a death behind bars sentence to a very old man whom they have watched struggle out of his chair about eight times a day - and with the help of an aide and a cane - hobble to the bathroom to pee.