The Last Mouthpiece

The old bosses have been sent to the big house, and Skinny Joey’s most serious (recent) charge is ... drunk driving. For Joe Santaguida, defending “alleged” mobsters isn’t what it used to be

YOUR EYE LEAPS to it the instant you enter the room. You’re tempted to blink hard, just to be sure it’s really there. But it is: On a blond wooden bench in a federal courtroom of regal bureaucratic blandness, on the first morning of a drug trial involving a defendant with a legendary organized crime pedigree, sits a big black hat. Or, rather, a normal-size black hat with a big black brim. Borsalino? Might as well be.  Expensive, no doubt. Well-made. Still, it may fall under the category of injudicious fashion statement. I mean, we’re talking Luca Brasi here, the lid he wore when Tattaglia’s guys whacked him with the combo garrote/icepick through-the-hand. The last hat you saw like this one sleeps with the fishes.    

"I was wearing a black hat because I wore a black coat!" says lawyer Joseph C. Santaguida, hardly touchy at all when he’s asked about it later. "If I had on a brown coat, I’d wear my brown hat! I have a green hat I wear with my green coat!" Joe-a green hat? "I wear hats! I’m 60 years old! When we tried one of the big mob cases in federal court, we hired a jury expert, a consultant, who said I oughta tone it down a little, and I told him to go screw. And it turned out the jury liked the way I dressed!"    

To be fair, it is a very cold day in January. And yet, what kind of defense attorney hired, in this instance, to represent young Raymond Martorano, the grandson and son of fabled (and now permanently incarcerated) career criminals Raymond "Long John" Martorano and Martorano, would have the balls to wear his big black Luca Brasi headwarmer into the belly of the beast?    

"Joe’s right out of Central Casting for what you’d expect as the lawyer for mobsters," says William Nugent, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney with the Organized Crime Task Force. "I used to joke around that one day I was going to stand up at the opening of a trial, point to Joe, and say, ‘Your honor, I’d like to introduce government exhibit number one.’ He’s got the whole mob lawyer thing down. He’s a good lawyer, and he always defends his clients vigorously. But he acts like one of the guys. Even the way he would refer to cooperating witnesses during a trial-he always called them rats!"    

And no doubt he always will. Santaguida has spent a fair amount (though by no means all) of his 35-year career defending members of the confederation of chronically accused criminals known as … well, we all know what it’s called. He hails from a time and a place where you call a rat a rat, and he’s not about to change now-even as all around him, traditional organized crime as we have known and avidly watched (if not exactly loved) it is heading toward extinction, pushed as much by inevitable socioeconomic change as by the rigorous application of antiracketeering laws.