Philly Mob Figure Acquitted of Murder

ByABC News
July 20, 2001, 6:59 PM

P H I L A D E L P H I A, July 20 -- Reputed mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey"Merlino was cleared by a jury today on the most serious charges inhis federal racketeering trial.

Merlino was found guilty of numerous racketeering-relatedcharges, such as extortion, bookmaking and receiving stolenproperty, but acquitted of three counts of murder and two counts ofattempted murder.

Merlino and three of his six co-defendants had faced thepossibility of life imprisonment if they had been convicted onmurder charges. Other charges in a 36-count indictment includedattempted murder, extortion, drug trafficking and illegal gambling.

The verdict followed an extended trial on a 36-countracketeering indictment. The prosecution took nearly three monthsto unspool its case, putting 50 witnesses on the stand andpresenting 943 pieces of evidence. Defense lawyers, focusing onlyon the most serious charges, called 40 witnesses and sped throughtheir case in only six days.

Opening statements began March 29. The jury started deliberatingSaturday after a week's worth of closing arguments.

High-Ranking Mafia Turncoat

The government's star witness was former crime boss RalphNatale, the highest ranking American Mafia figure to become agovernment informant.

Natale spent 14 riveting days on the stand, testifying that heplotted with Merlino to take control of the Philadelphia-SouthJersey mob in the early 1990s by hunting down and killing membersof a rival mob faction. Defense attorneys called Natale a liarwhose sole motivation in testifying was to avoid dying in prison.

Another mob turncoat, Ronald Previte, was a corrupt formerPhiladelphia police officer who joined the Mafia and rose to theposition of captain all the while working as an informant for theFBI. The defense made much of the fact that the FBI paid Previte$500,000 to wear a wire and record hundreds of conversations withMerlino and other defendants. Those tapes formed the basis of drug,theft and illegal gambling charges against Merlino.