MIAMI – A Florida appeals court on Wednesday upheld the murder conviction of a former Boston-based FBI agent in a 1982 mob hit, a ruling the ex-agent angrily denounced as a "rush to judgment" in a phone interview from prison.
The 3rd District Court of Appeals affirmed the 2008 conviction of former agent John Connolly in the shooting death decades earlier of then-World Jai-Alai President John Callahan by a hit man. The ruling was released less than a month after judges heard oral arguments, unusually swift for a high-profile case.
Without issuing an opinion, the appeals court brushed aside the agent's arguments that the conviction should be thrown out because he never touched the gun used to kill the gambling executive in south Florida and was 1,500 miles away at the time.
Connolly, 70, reacted with outrage in a phone interview with The Associated Press that had been arranged before the ruling was released. In June, Connolly will complete a 10-year sentence at a federal prison in North Carolina for a corruption conviction arising from his dealings with Boston's Winter Hill Gang.
"They are going to put me in prison for the rest of my life for a crime I had nothing to do with," said Connolly, who faces 40 more years in Florida prison for the Callahan murder. "How is this justice? How is this possible? They got what they want."
Prosecutors said Connolly tipped off the Boston gangsters — led by FBI Top 10 fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi — that Callahan was likely to implicate them in the slaying a year earlier of another World Jai-Alai executive. Bulger and Flemmi were secretly working as high-level FBI informants handled by Connolly, who used their tips against members of the Italian-American Mafia, then the top federal crime-fighting priority.
"It doesn't get any worse than what he did," Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a phone interview. "He betrayed people as a law enforcement officer.People died because of his betrayal. The jurors saw what the truth was and the appeals court found that justice was served. We certainly think justice was served."
In the appeal, Connolly lawyer Manuel Alvarez argued that the four-year statute of limitations to bring the second-degree murder charge for the 1982 Florida crime had run out because prosecutors could not show that Connolly ever possessed the gun used to kill Callahan.
Prosecutors contended that the statute of limitations for second-degree murder doesn't apply in this case because a firearm was involved. They said that Connolly, as an FBI agent, was almost certainly armed when his phone call tip to the mobsters was made, and that him having the murder weapon itself was not required.
The court's no-opinion decision means it cannot be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court and there is no way to know the court's reasoning, Alvarez said. He said his only recourse is to ask the appeals court for a rehearing and, in what would be long odds, to seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It is very disheartening because, after practicing law for 25 years and having litigated over 800 appeals, I know that our position on the main issue was unassailable," Alvarez said. "If I somehow misread three decades' worth of Florida law, I'd like to know where I went wrong."
At the appeals hearing, prosecutors argued that the crime began the moment Connolly made the phone call to Flemmi and ended when Callahan was shot in a van outside the Fort Lauderdale airport in August 1982. His body was later found in a parking lot at Miami International Airport, stuffed in the trunk of his Cadillac.
The admitted hit man, John Martorano, testified at Connolly's trial that he never met the FBI agent and hadn't seen him until that day in court.
Connolly's federal prison sentence followed his 2002 convictions in Boston federal court for racketeering and obstruction of justice for his involvement with the Winter Hill Gang. Flemmi claimed that he and Bulger paid Connolly about $235,000 for protecting them, which Connolly denies.
"I did my job. I never did any wrong. I played the cards I was dealt," Connolly said in the interview from prison. "These were the rules we were playing by. The way you bring a Mafia family down is you have to deal with the same people. It's two evils. You have to deal with the greater of two evils."
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