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Joseph Salvati Discusses Serving 30 Years for Wrongful Murder Conviction

Aired May 4, 2001 - 12:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH SALVATI, WRONGFULLY CONVICTED OF MURDER: I have served 30 long and hard years in prison for a crime I did not commit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROGER COSSACK, HOST: A Congressional committee calls it a travesty of justice. Joseph Salvati was fingered for a 1965 killing north of Boston. But new evidence shows he was innocent and the government knew he was innocent.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VICTOR GARO, ATTORNEY FOR JOSEPH SALVATI: With one witness, Joseph "The Animal" Barboza, who gave uncorroborated testimony in three cases, the government had what they wanted.

PAUL RICO, RETIRED FBI SPECIAL AGENT: I believe the role I played was the role I should have played. I believe that we...

GARO: But now -- but now you know you...

RICO: ...supplied the witness and that we gave him to the local police. And they are supposed to be able to handle the case from there on. That's it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: After three decades behind bars, Joseph Salvati is ratting out the United States criminal justice system.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Great Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN TO PROOF.

On March 12, 1965, Edward Deegan was murdered near Boston. Six men were convicted of the killing, based primarily on the testimony of an alleged contract killer -- among them, Joseph Salvati.

He served 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. But recently uncovered evidence in the case shows that an informant tipped off the FBI before the murder, and agents were later told that Vincent Flemmi and Joseph "The Animal" Barboza had participated in the killing. Flemmi was being courted by the FBI as a top echelon informant. And Barboza, an alleged contract killer from the Patriarca family, was the prosecution's key witness in the conviction of Joseph Salvati.

In 1970, Barboza hired criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, who joins us today from Boston. And joining us here in Washington: Joseph Salvati and his wife, Marie, and Salvati's attorney, Victor Garo. In the back, Jackie Stocklin (ph), Josh Pavlock (ph) and Jim Wilson, chief counsel for the House Committee on Government Reform.

Joe, I want to start right with you because this a story that is just beyond belief, but did it happen to you. Joe, why you? Why did they decide to incorrectly -- and lie and put you in prison for a crime you didn't commit?

J. SALVATI: Because Barboza told them to. Barboza and I didn't get along. And I made a loan from him and never paid him back. And, to him, like, that's defiance. And he doesn't like that. And that's his way of getting people -- besides shooting them.

COSSACK: And then so -- Barboza -- Barboza just went ahead and lied about you and put you in prison. You went ahead and said that you had nothing to do with it and had a trial. What was the trial like?

J. SALVATI: The trial, it was like, you had a better chance if you faced the Ku Klux Klan. The trial was over before it started. Everything was -- there was more signals than a third base coach would give you there. And everything just, you know, was all against us.

COSSACK: Did you testify in the trial?

J. SALVATI: Yes.

COSSACK: And you told the jury you had nothing to do with it?

J. SALVATI: Yes.

COSSACK: But they didn't believe you.

J. SALVATI: No.

COSSACK: Marie, what was it like for you? All of a sudden, one day, you're minding you're own business and suddenly you hear that your husband has been arrested for murder.

MARIE SALVATI, WIFE OF JOSEPH SALVATI: Well, it was a nightmare, for sure. You know, I was numb. I couldn't believe this was happening to my life. My whole world went upside down.

COSSACK: How old were you then?

M. SALVATI: I was 32 years old. COSSACK: And had how many children?

M. SALVATI: And we had four children, we had. And they were little. My youngest was 4. My son was 4. My daughters were 7, 9 and 11 when their dad went away. You know -- so it was devastating. It really, you know, changed our lives completely.

COSSACK: And yet you never lost confidence in your husband. You never believed that he was anything but innocent. How did you manage -- the two of you, how did manage to keep together during those 30 years?

M. SALVATI: Well, I would go visit Joe every week. First of all, we talked to the children about what had happened, you know. And I told them their dad had no part of what was happening to him. He needed our love, our support.

Joe was always a good father and a family man. The respect was there. We have old-time values from marriage and nurturing and family. And then I would take the children up. I would go every week, but I'd take the children up, like, every other week, pack a lunch bag, get them ready to go. And you know, they needed that. He needed that for the children: the hugs, the kisses, the nurturing.

And I would tell him, like, all the good stuff would happened. And he -- I said to him, "You take care of yourself in jail, and I will take care of the family outside."

COSSACK: Joe, how did you manage to keep your sanity in there? You knew, for 30 years, that you had absolutely nothing to do with this murder, that you were just plucked off the street and put in prison. How did you manage to keep your sanity?

J. SALVATI: Well, I had to stay strong. I had to do the time. You know, you sit down and you get together with yourself. And you can either do it the hard way or the easy way. You do the time or let the time do you. And I had my family, I had my children and Victor. And you do it a day at a time. You have to stay strong for your family and yourself.

COSSACK: You would get a card from him every week, wouldn't you?

M. SALVATI: Yes.

COSSACK: Tell us about that.

M. SALVATI: Every -- once a week, usually every weekend, you know, I get this card in the mail, and I'd leave it out on my TV, and it was what kept us going. It was our little package, with little love notes, little personal notes sometimes, and, "I love you," things like that, would be on the card. And I'd keep it out until -- and I wouldn't put it away until the next card came.

And let me tell you, for like 30 years, I want to say I felt like my life was in the shoe box. And as the boxes got full I tied them with a ribbon. And, you know, I felt like I was married to the state. I felt the state owned my husband. It was really -- it was a hard thing. In the meantime, I knew I needed strength to go on, and you do what you have to do.

COSSACK: Victor, you're a heroic lawyer and it's a delight to have you here. Lawyers get such bad reputations for things, sometimes undeservedly. But you are a lawyer who defended and stuck with him for many, many years free of charge, because you knew and believed he was innocent.

First of all, why -- it's clear that there's two parts of this story. First, an innocent man goes to prison for 30 years. But the other part, perhaps equally as important, is the notion that law enforcement knew he was innocent, knew he was innocent before the murder was even committed, knew who committed the murder, and yet let him go to prison. Tell us about that.

GARO: Back in the days of the '60s, there were gang wars going on, there was a lot of killings, and the government was not able to prove who were doing the killings.

COSSACK: This is in Boston.

GARO: In Boston, the Boston gang wars in the '60s. And the government, under J. Edgar Hoover at that time, found a way to wipe out and eradicate organized crime in the entire northeast area through one witness, and that was Joe "The Animal" Barboza.

The FBI flipped him to become a witness against -- in three different cases. First, against Gennaro Angiulo in Massachusetts, who was the alleged head of organized crime in Massachusetts. Two: against Raymond Patriarca, the alleged head of organized crime in New England. Three: the Deegan murder case, the right arms of Gennaro Angiulo and Raymond Patriarca, and other people they wanted off the street.

So in one fell swoop, with one witness giving uncorroborated testimony, here we go. The FBI, through its propaganda, was able to say: We are still the best crime-fighting force in the world. Look what we're going to do.

And that's the reason why I say that J. Edgar Hoover crossed over the line in this case. J. Edgar Hoover became a criminal in this case because he let Joe "The Animal" Barboza testify perjuriously on October 25, 1967.

COSSACK: Victor, records now -- newly discovered or newly released records, now indicate clearly that law enforcement absolutely knew about this. Why would they trade Barboza, who they believed was going to be an informant? Or is that the reason that they traded Barboza, for him, just because they believed Barboza could give them the rest of the Mafia?

GARO: It was all about PEG: power, ego and greed. That's what it was with J. Edgar Hoover. He had to have the power. The only way he could have the power was go after organized crime. Go after it and wipe it out in the entire northeast area. The FBI sold its soul to Joe Barboza. It was more important for the FBI to protect prized informants and witnesses like Barboza, than it was for innocent people to be framed. And they knew they were being framed.

COSSACK: They also wanted Stephen Flemmi to be an informant, too. Was he part of this?

GARO: If I could give you a little chronology on the evidence: In February of 1965, H. Paul Rico and Dennis Condon targeted Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi...

COSSACK: Now, those are two FBI agents.

GARO: That is correct.

COSSACK: Former FBI agents.

GARO: Targeted Stephen "the Rifleman" Flemmi as a top echelon informant. On March 9th of 1965, the records show and the evidence shows that H. Paul Rico and Dennis Condon, retired FBI agents, targeted Vincent Flemmi, who was Stephen Flemmi's brother, as an informant.

On March 10th of 1965, Vincent Flemmi told an informant, who I say was his brother, Stephen Flemmi, that he and Barboza were going to go kill Teddy Deegan. On March 12th, Teddy Deegan was shot. On March 13th, Vincent Flemmi tells the informant -- same informant who I say is his brother -- that he and Barboza and three others last night killed Teddy Deegan, how they killed him, that they had done a sloppy job, and all the facts surrounding that...

COSSACK: That information, definitely, in your allegations and what the papers seem to show, was in the hands of law enforcement.

GARO: I have the documents. I have the initials of H. Paul Rico on the documents. But more importantly, on March 19th, all this information was sent up to J. Edgar Hoover. J. Edgar Hoover knew in March of 1965 who the innocent and who the guilty were, but he allowed Barboza, who then had flipped as a witness for them in 1967.

COSSACK: I've got to take a break. When we come back, how, after three decades, top-secret FBI -- I'm sorry, I have to go to Jeanne Meserve now in Washington.

(INTERRUPTED BY BREAKING NEWS)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break from BURDEN OF PROOF -- more on this story of this innocent man who went to prison for 30 years for a crime he did not commit. Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

An Indiana Baptist school principal was charged Thursday in connection with the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl who has been missing for more than two days. (END LEGAL BRIEF)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DAN BURTON (R), INDIANA: I think this whole episode is disgraceful. It's the greatest -- one of the greatest, if not the greatest failure in the history of federal law enforcement. If there's one institution that the American people need to have competence in, it's the FBI.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: After serving 30 years in prison, the truth about Joseph Salvati is finally coming out. In an effort to protect a potential government informant, he was prosecuted for a crime he absolutely did not commit. Joining us now is famed attorney F. Lee Bailey.

Lee, there came a time when this Joseph "The Animal" Barboza came to you and said: Listen, I want to recant this testimony.

Tell us about that.

F. LEE BAILEY, FMR. ATTY FOR JOSEPH BARBOZA: I had represented him earlier in an unrelated case, and to his surprise, we won it. So when he decided that he'd better do things right, he sought to hire me. Bear in mind, four of these people were under sentence of death, and they upheld that sentence in the Supreme Judicial Court.

He gave me a short affidavit naming the four people who were innocent. Of the six, two had actually been involved. I filed it in federal court. Federal officials went to Barboza who, by now, was back in prison for a probation violation, and said: Cancel Bailey's lie detector test. Fire Bailey or you'll never walk the streets again.

So he did, and they covered up what was staring them in the face, and that was that he had made up a story, that he had help from the FBI, and how he made it up, and who told him to target the supposed right-hand man of Patriarca and Gennaro Angiulo.

COSSACK: Now, Lee, when you started to represent him, he came to you and the issue was he wanted to recant his testimony, because in Massachusetts, at least as I understand it, that if you are caught committing perjury in a case in which there's a possible death penalty, you can -- you, yourself, the perjurer, can go to jail for life. Is that true?

BAILEY: Absolutely, and Barboza knew it. And he wanted me to find a way that he could recant the testimony, vindicate these men, Patriarca, and these four, without going to prison. And I said I would try to find a way, and I wrote the Mass. attorney general to tell him what was up. He didn't bother to answer my letter.

COSSACK: Now, when did you find out, Lee, that -- I mean, when did you find out that the FBI or federal agents -- was it the FBI or federal agents who visited Barboza and told him to fire you?

BAILEY: It was federal people.

COSSACK: Do you know who they were?

BAILEY: Well, the testimony has shown that it was Edward Harrington of the strike judge, now a judge, and a very fine judge, and an associate named Cliff Barnes. And, although their conduct, I don't think, was inappropriate, someone followed on and said, "Fire Bailey." They did not.

COSSACK: Did you -- when did you learn this, Lee?

BAILEY: Well, I've learned it by degrees, but bear in mind something, Roger. Everybody in our profession knew these guys were innocent and they'd been framed. We knew it before trial, during trial and after trial, and we knew it was orchestrated by the FBI. But nobody would do anything about it. The court system simply failed because it didn't have the machinery to catch a perjurer.

COSSACK: All right. Let's talk to Jim Wilson now. Jim, you're the attorney for the government committee that is -- the Congressional committee that is hearing this and reviewing this. Where do you start in a situation like this?

What kind of legislation can your committee produce to make sure things like this don't happen again?

JIM WILSON, HOUSE CMTE. ON GOVT. REFORM: Well, I think there are two things that are important. This is Congressional oversight at its best. Victor Garo worked for 26 years and he vindicated the rights of his client, But something that people should know about: Mrs. Salvati was asked a question yesterday, the first question she was asked was: "Has anybody ever said they were sorry?"

And the answer was no. So the first thing we did accomplish yesterday was at least there was a recognition of the suffering that went on in this case. Now, moving to what we can do, we need to take a long, hard look at the way informants were used and are currently being used, because the way informants were used in Boston in the '60s and '70s and '80s and '90s was absolutely disgraceful. And it should never happen again. You can't legislate out bad conduct and bad actors, but you've got to set up a system that has checks and balances so that people can understand what is going on at the time.

COSSACK: Jim, what are you going to do with a system that rewards people, oftentimes bad people, Barboza was a bad guy -- that rewards bad people for giving information to the government, when they have an absolute, that gives them an absolute reason not to tell the truth. How do you put a brake there? What do you do?

WILSON: Well, you can't -- we're not painting the FBI with the same brush. There are an awful lot of good people who do the right thing.

COSSACK: And I want to make that clear that I agree with you on that.

WILSON: And that's a critical thing.

COSSACK: I'm talking about a specific set of facts, and only a specific set of facts.

WILSON: We had a situation here where there was an informant who was never asked the critical question by his FBI handlers. The critical question in this case was: You knew that Vincent Flemmi was going to kill Deegan. You knew afterwards he did kill Deegan. What did he say when you asked him why didn't you testify against Vincent Flemmi? They just didn't ask that question.

So here we've got somebody who did the wrong thing. But it was also exacerbated by the fact that there were no checks, there were no balances. The FBI was never -- never disclosed their informants or any of the information to anybody outside of the Bureau. There's got to be a check or a balance on the use of confidential informants.

COSSACK: Lee, any suggestions on what you do with confidential informants? I know as a criminal defense attorney you have fought this battle your entire life.

BAILEY: There's only one thing that can be done to stop the Barboza and the H. Paul Ricos of this world. And that is for the FBI, which runs over 10,000 polygraph tests a year when it wants to, but will not test its dirty and lying witnesses -- to be required to do that before people are put in the electric chair based on the testimony of a man who killed 20 people and made it known that he was getting vengeance.

COSSACK: Joseph, what do you intend to do with the rest of your life now? Tell us about it.

J. SALVATI: Well, I retired and I do a little real estate work, and spend a lot of time with the grandchildren, my children and family. About three, four weeks ago, we took our first vacation together, Marie and I. We went to Florida for a week. And just live our lives.

COSSACK: What's it like, having him home after all this time, Marie?

M. SALVATI: Oh, it's wonderful. It's a new life for the both of us. And we've still got a lot of years ahead of us, so we're upbeat about all the good stuff that's happening. And it's going to get better for us.

COSSACK: Mr. Garo, what do you intend to do now with this case? Are you going to bring a suit on behalf of them?

GARO: I've been asked that question many times, and I'd like to answer that, if I may, that I keep asking: Why do I have to file a civil lawsuit in this case when a superior court judge has already thrown out the case and has lambasted the FBI of wrongdoing? The district attorney's office in Suffolk County has nol-prossed the case and said we will never prosecute this because of the FBI documents. We have the FBI documents showing what they have done. In order for me to go bring a civil lawsuit, which is complex civil litigation, it will be another five to eight years before this couple will receive a dollar.

Therefore, the federal government, once again, has Mr. Salvati on the hook, so that he'll be about 78 years of age, maybe, before he receives any money. There's something wrong with that system.

COSSACK: With that, I'm afraid that's all the time we have today. Thanks to our guests, thank you for watching. Today on "TALKBACK LIVE," it's "free-for-all-Friday." What's making news in your community? So send your e-mail to Bobbie Battista and tune in at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

And on Monday, we'll be joined by Michael Shiavo. His wife has been in a coma for 11 years and he says it's time to let her go. But her parents are fighting to keep her on a feeding tube. So join us Monday for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. I'll see you then.

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