Tuesday, April 3, 2012

John Gotti: The Twenty-Year Anniversary of His Infamous 1992 Trial

Twenty years ago today, John J. Gotti was convicted for violations of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in connection with five murders, and several other crimes.  Known as the Dapper Don, Gotti presided over the largest crime family in the United States, which generated an estimated $500 million per year.  The highlight of this case was when the former Gambino underboss, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, decided to turn state’s evidence and take the stand against Gotti.  His powerful testimony implicated Gotti in numerous murders, most notably the murder of former Gambino head Paul Castellano, and former underboss Thomas Bilotti in 1985 outside Sparks Steakhouse in Manhattan, New York.

The RICO conviction came after he avoided conviction on three separate occasions after becoming head of the Gambino Crime Family.  This time, however, was different.  The FBI built its case through bugging Gotti’s principal place of holding court, the Ravenite Social Club.  Over one hundred hours of conversations of Gotti were recorded.  These bugs captured, among other things, Gotti gloating that he “was in jail when [he] whacked [Robert DiBernardo].”  Gotti was later charged with murdering DiBernardo along with four other people – two of which he was also caught on tape discussing. 

On December 11, 1990, John Gotti was arrested for a violation of RICO based primarily on these tapes.  Congress expressly enacted this Act to counteract the growing influence of organized crime (although this was not RICO’s exclusive use).  To demonstrate a RICO violation, the government had to first establish that a RICO enterprise existed.  Such an enterprise exists where two or more people gather with the purpose of conducting illegal activity.  Thus, establishing that Gotti was the head of the Gambino Crime Family was critical because otherwise a RICO case would not exist.  In theory, this was not too difficult, but for many years, made members refused to even acknowledge the existence of the mob, let alone whether an individual was the boss of a family.  Fortunately, the U.S. Attorneys were able to persuade a Philadelphia mobster to flip and testify that John Gotti was in fact the head of the Gambino Crime Family. 

Next, the government had to show that: (1) Gotti committed two or more predicate acts (in this case four murders and an attempted murder) within a ten-year time period; (2) the predicate acts were linked to one another; and (3) the predicate acts demonstrated criminal conduct of a continuing nature. 

Around the clock surveillance produced a breadth of evidence to prove these elements.  His fate was truly sealed, however, when Sammy The Bull flipped on Gotti and turned state’s evidence.  Ironically, on FBI recordings, John was heard bragging to the eventual turncoat, Gravano, that “everybody in the city's got rats near them . . . but we ain't got 'em near us . . . .”  Sammy The Bull was the highest-ranking member of a crime family ever to flip, and the information he possessed was overwhelming.  Gravano himself admitted to committing nineteen murders. 

On the witness stand, Gravano testified about John’s plot to kill his former boss, Paul Castellano and Tommy Bilotti to become boss of the Gambino Crime Family.  Gravano also implicated John in the three other murders with which Gotti was charged.  Jury deliberations were quick and swift.  After fourteen hours of deliberation, on April 3, 1992, Gotti was found guilty of RICO violations in relation to five murders, related murder charges, conspiracy to commit murder, gambling, loansharking, obstruction of justice, and tax fraud.  On June 23, 1992, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. 

During this period, John Gotti was somewhat of a people’s champ.  He received thousands of letters from adoring fans while incarcerated (both during trial and after his conviction).  Spectators lined the outside of the courthouse each day and applauded Gotti as he entered and departed from court.  The New York Times’ coverage of the trial was later criticized for being pro-Gotti.  Gotti’s stardom waned while in prison, and he eventually succumbed to cancer in 2002. 

His conviction ushered in a new era of mafia operations.  Mafia influence began to wane considerably in the ensuing years.  The Government made a definitive statement in this case, one that was heard by the entire mafia world.  Although many believe Gotti’s hubris is what really led to his downfall, the government officials working on this case took down, as the New York Post dubbed him, the Last Don.

Ryan Weir
Blog Editor, Criminal Law Brief


  1. I think this is interesting in light of Mob Wives, a popular reality show on VH1 depicting the lives of relatives of the mob. The media has taken these real life crime families and made them into a cash cow. It glamorizes this type of crime and made these women famous just by virtue of being related to these criminals (one in particular is the daughter of Sammy the Bull). However, this blog post effectively reminds our violence and drama hungry culture that these men committed serious crimes and they (or their families, for that matter) do not deserve to be valorized for breaking the law in a complex way.

  2. Seems like such is the Nature of Politics in general...Complex crimes that are seemingly impossible to totally uncover...for if we did - OOOhhhlala!

    Great Job Ryan Weir - A very informative and well written piece!