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May 28th, 2006

Attending a Mob Trial

Not this:
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But this:

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Retired NYPD detectives Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa were recently found guilty of murdering for the mob. I went to the courtroom one day because one of the cold case detectives I wrote about in my last book worked on this case. “You gotta go,” he told me. “It’s great.” I didn’t believe him. I’ve been to mob trials before. Mob trials are BORING. When journalists write about how fascinating and riveting it all is, I have to wonder if we were even in the same courtroom. Who are they trying to kid?? Murder is ugly and stupid and listening to these losers drone on and on about their loser lives is beyond painful and not at all riveting. It’s hours and hours and hours of tedium. The reason the HBO TV show The Sopranos works so well is because they come closest to telling the truth about the mob. Although there are exceptions, for the most part it’s a bunch of fat, old guys, who were never the best or the brightest, even within the context of the mob (although Caracappa, for the record, is trim). Unfortunately, at the trial they don’t have Hollywood writers to keep the action moving. There are however, smaller, quieter dramas, if you stop looking for The Godfather.

The people who are part of the trial, the witnesses, the attorneys, the judge, and so on — they’re all in this very weird, exposed position — it’s a stage. How do they handle that? Are they nervous and awkward? Or confident? One defense attorney tried to come off well-mannered and elegant, but he over-acted. He was more cartoonish than refined. The judge in this case, however, was sharp–way more interesting than the mob guys. Like when he sometimes told the cartoon lawyer in so many words to just “shut up.”

The really fascinating characters though, were the ones I was sitting with. I want to say the “audience”, but that can’t be the right word. Here’s what it looks like. You walk into the courtroom. And whenever anyone walks into the courtroom, everyone turns to check them out. They look at you like they were expecting someone more exciting to show up. Next you see signs directing you to where you can sit: press and law enforcement to the left, the family and “public” to the right. The press and the family get the best seats, the front rows.

The seating space itself is small and crowded. People who probably hate each other are packed in together tightly. The FBI and the NYPD, who have a famously uneasy alliance, are pushed up against each other, shoulder to shoulder. When I was writing The Restless Sleep, whenever an FBI guy walked into the room you could tell instantly that he wasn’t a cop. The feds love to lord it over the cops. They’d walk in like they owned the place. I’m guessing they would say there is a reason for this approach, I’m just describing how it looked like to an outsider. When I dealt with the FBI outside the NYPD, they were great. I liked them. I don’t want to get into an FBI vs NYPD thing. They both work very hard, they’re doing the best they can, as far as I can tell. And these cases are happening mostly due to the diligence and hard work of the feds (including the federal prosecutors). They are very persistant. I wouldn’t want them after me. But you could see why cops might have a problem with them. Anyway these days, with their state-of-the-art counter-terrorism bureau, the NYPD is getting to give some of that attitude back.

The cops are also sitting inches from the press, who I know they would just love to clock sometimes. The defendant’s families, who bicker among themselves, and sometimes laugh, are only a couple of feet from the very men who arrested their fathers, brothers, sons and husbands. Not once did I catch them looking over. The most poignancy is in the faces of law enforcement. For them, this is the culmination of years of work. They watch so intently. More intently than the families of the men who are on trial for their lives. Like people who have been watching a long running television show since the beginning, and who know and are invested in the characters, this trial is more engrossing to them.

In the halls, when we broke for lunch, I watched a detective blow off a DEA agent. The federal agent wanted information from the local detective, but didn’t have a clue how to approach him. He acted like they were friends when they weren’t, so the detective turned his back, walked off, leaving the agent twisting in the wind, in front of everyone. Given their history, I can see how it was a proud moment for the NYPD guy, but I just cringed for both of them. When I left with my detective friend for lunch the first place we stopped at was filled with wiseguys and we had to find someplace else.

So my detective friend was half right. Mob trials can be interesting but not because of some tired, old, mob myths.

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