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

Well, you can’t argue with that. And certainly Merlino has earned his expertise when it comes to judging lawyers. Still, several attorneys interviewed for this article wondered pointedly whether Merlino would stick with Santaguida if a big racketeering case ever came against him, as almost everyone assumes it will then, they predict, Merlino would dump his old friend and seek out more brilliant counsel.    

"I’d use him," Merlino says flatly when I run that by him. "He’s a good lawyer."

Let’s see for ourselves. It’s a few minutes before showtime now, and the courtroom is empty except for Santaguida and opposing counsel, the Assistant U.S.     from the organized Crime Strike Force suitably bland and blond, busily unloading two  large steel-mesh carts piled with files, documents and boxes of evidence. "The burden of proof " she jokes, hefting a cardboard carton. The defense table is barely burdened at all, with a single cardboard folder,  a thin Gucci briefcase and a     pad on which Santaguida is scribbling, head down,     oblivious to the prosecutorial arsenal being readied just across the aisle.    

At first, the case sounds like your average drug –  trafficking scenario in which 23-year-old Raymond Martorano was arrested in May 1998 after transporting two large crates from the airport to a garage in South Philly, said crates having then been seized and found to hold more than 400 pounds of marijuana. But there’s a legalistic snag here, since FBI agents arrested Martorano he or his partner opened the boxes, thereby raising the question of whether it can be proved he knew what was inside-a necessary condition if he’s to be judged guilty as charged. The government claims the proof that he knew what he was carrying is circumstantial but sufficient; Santaguida contends that the law requires proof his client knew what he was transport –  and so all should be dismissed, and he has motioned the judge to that effect.

Instead of cartloads of favorable evidence, the defendant’s side of the aisle is stacked with several generations of his female relatives, from his grandmother (Mrs. Long John) down to somebody’s toddler. You can tell they’re the defendant’s kin because they are all beautiful in similar feminine yet formidable ways. The tough guys always get the best-looking girls, and after a few generations of that, the gene pool benefits, as a glance at Team Santaguida’s cheering section proves. (Perhaps tellingly, there are no adult males of the defendant’s relation in attendance.) On the other, considerably less crowded side of the aisle sit a few homely FBI agents and some other feels who’ve stopped by out of curiosity.

The prosecutor’s direct examination of the opening witnesses sets the pattern for the government’s case, which is characterized (as these things nearly always are) by mind-numbing detail presented as monotonously as possible. The U.S. Attorney poses her questions in a calm, neutral manner, standing still, rarely gesturing, speaking in an affable yet businesslike tone. The FBI agents she calls to the stand in kind, minus the affability.    

And then Santaguida steps up to the plate for cross-examination, and the level of courtroom decorum relaxes a little while the air of theatricality rises. The lawyer’s voice is a gruff baritone rumble; rough around the edges, like what you’d hear braying from the hundred-dollar craps tables in Atlantic on an overheated Saturday night. He’s hatless now, of course, but his double-breasted dark blue pinstripe suit, white shirt and silvery tie do nothing to detract from his overall-shall we call it watchability, especially in this sober setting.