The defense strategy in mob trials is so predictable: attack the government witness as an unlikeble rat, and claim the testimony is motivated by a deal to avoid prison for his own crimes.
This strategy was at play in the ongoing trial targeting the Philadelphia Mafia when mobster-turned-informant Louis "Bent Finger Lou" Monacello was cross-examined as reported by Dave Schratwieser for WTXF.Philadelphia News, Weather and Sports from WTXF FOX 29
And last week the defense lawyer for reputed Genovese capo Anthony "Rom" Romanello also pulled this well-worn page from the playbook to cross-examine flipped Bonanno boss Joseph "Big Joey" Massino as reported by the New York Post: "You became a rat!"
The problem with this tired strategy is that it rarely works, and juries routinely convict mobsters based on testimony from rats.
Juries are sophisticated enough to understand that a rat carries baggage, and they aren't looking for boy scouts and choir boys. When the government tries the devil, the witnesses often come from hell. Indeed, a flipped witness is credible precisely because he's often a slimeball. Who else would be involved with the Mafia to know where the proverbial bodies are buried? The badder the rat, the more he knows. A witness is more credible on the stand based on the more "street cred" he has, and defense lawyers paradoxically are propping up the rat by empasizing how bad he is.
Although rats often are motivated by self-interest in their decisions to flip, the move also comes at great personal risk to themselves. After all, the criminal underworld doesn't look kindly on those who betray it. Moreover, whatever deal a rat obtains from prosecutors is conditioned upon his truthful testimony, and he risks losing the deal for any perjurious statements or other misconduct. Finally, it's the rare case which is predicated solely on rat testimony, and often there is other corroborating evidence.
Mob apologists may bemoan the loss of omerta but ordinary folk want career criminals to betray their once-held values, and rather than condemning rats we encourage them.
The old school guys like to pretend their generation of mobsters were supposed men of honor who remained true to the code of silence. However, most of those old timers never were put in a position to betray omerta because they did not face the same clampdown from law enforcement as today's young bucks. It's easy to claim honor when it's never been tested.
For decades the mob was the fourth branch of city governments across the country, and its rackets were protected and its messes were ignored. Indeed, even on the rare occassions when indictments were brought against mobsters, the judicial system was notoriously lenient with them.
Mobsters now face real heat since the feds stepped up its game and pushed the local authorities aside, and even the old geezers probably would rat if they were still in the game today.
Defense lawyers would be well-advised to get some new material in representing their mob clients: attacking the rats has become meaningless, and underestimates how much the public appreciates their service even if we don't like them.