Joseph C. Massino, the suspected leader of the Bonanno crime family, is in a Brooklyn cell awaiting two federal trials. The New York Times says federal prosecutors are weighing whether to seek his execution. It’s a prospect that the Times says makes Massino, described as the last of the official Mafia chiefs still at large, an unlikely symbol in the capital punishment debate.
Since new federal death penalty laws were enacted beginning in the 1980’s, the Justice Department has often sought capital punishment of black and Hispanic leaders of drug or street gangs. Never have federal prosecutors pursued the execution of a top Cosa Nostra boss.
Critics have wondered whether the popular fascination with the mob gave its leaders what amounted to immunity from capital punishment. “We have demonized young black men and young Hispanic men who engage in violent gang activity in a way that we have not demonized – and arguably have romanticized – white men who engage in the same conduct,” said Elisabeth Semel, a capital punishment critic at the law school of the University of California at Berkeley.
Prosecutor Greg Andres, has outlined his case against Massino as a tale of murder, drug abuse, and betrayal in the top ranks of a famous crime family. Prosecutors say a top Bonanno informant, believed to be Massino’s underboss and brother-in-law, will provide critical testimony that could send him to the death chamber. Massino allegedly said that a Sicilian-born Bonanno captain who is said to have crossed Massino, “had to go,” and was soon gone. His body was found on a Bronx street with three bullet holes in his head. In April, Massino, 61, is to go on trial in a racketeering case involving seven murders from the 1980’s that could land him in prison for the rest of his life.
“In the Mafia case, the killing of a rival family member and the dumping of the body looks exactly like a crime in the drug-ring case in a minority-dominated drug organization,” said Samuel R. Gross, a death penalty expert at the University of Michigan Law School. “So why is one person facing the death penalty and the other is not?”
Massino’s case is awkward for death penalty critics. To press for a capital case against him, they would have to abandon their opposition to execution. If they oppose capital charges in the case of an alleged Mafia chief, they would undercut their argument that the failure to seek the death of mob boss shows the unfairness of the system. Semel, director of the Berkeley death penalty clinic, said, “What is called for is a rethinking of the use of the federal death penalty entirely, not a decision to go after a single white male who is allegedly affiliated with the mob.”