Famed trial lawyer James LaRossa, who died in 2014, liked to call himself “the last of the gladiators”—in a nod to the role played by aggressive defense lawyers during high-profile government prosecutions of mob bosses and white-collar criminals during the 1970s and 1980s.
Arguably, LaRossa was the most successful, if not the most well-covered, of that special group. His defenses of mob bosses like Paul Castellano and Vincent Gigante, labor bosses like Anthony Scotto, and corrupt politicians and businessmen, made him a top player in New York politics—and earned him a few other less favorable titles. New York Magazine once called him the “bionic mouth of white-collar crime.”
His son, journalist James LaRossa Jr., provides a more nuanced look in a memoir of his father, called Last of the Gladiators: A Memoir of Love, Redemption, and the Mob. According to LaRossa, Jr., some of the roots of his father’s zeal can be found in his anger over mid-20th century prejudice against Italian-Americans.
In a chat with TCR’s Julia Pagnamenta, LaRossa, Jr traces his dad’s conversion to the defense bar to a spat with then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, reveals how one of his father’s cases was the first test of the RICO law, and explains why there was no love lost between him and a Manhattan DA named Rudy Giuliani.
The conversation has been condensed for space and clarity.
The Crime Report: What led you to write about your father?
James LaRossa Jr: I was trying to take a snapshot of that whole generation. We lived in Flatbush, Brooklyn until I was nine, and then my father went from the Justice Department straight to the defense bar and we moved from Brooklyn to Greenwich, Connecticut. As my father gained power in politics and law, he was completely integrated into New York society and became a real player in law and politics.
Over the years, I began to realize how much prejudice my father’s generation encountered. He was prevented from working in a white-shoe law firm that he had interned for. He had quite a chip on his shoulder. He was very defensive about the Italian-American thing, and consequently I was, too, as a kid. The intense anti-Italian sentiment in the United States goes back a generation to the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti. Italians were literally lynched.
My father was a very prominent defense lawyer, and of course he was in the news all the time, mainly because the mob trials were so well covered. So there were people who just assumed that my family was somehow in the Mafia, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
TCR: In the book you describe how many of the Italian immigrants who emigrated in the late 19th century were “political refugees” who had opposed Gen. Giuseppe Garibaldi’s unification of Italy in 1861. This becomes especially relevant to your own family history.
LaRossa: There were two waves of immigrants from Italy. There was the wave that was starving to death and needed to go somewhere else to flourish, but there was a group that actually came before ….the political refugees. Italy was just a group of feudal states and at the end of the 19th century the whole country was united under Giuseppe Garibaldi. A lot of Italians balked at that. Very much like a lot of people in America balked at the Revolutionary War.
Most people don’t understand that [an estimated] third of Americans sided with the British. There were a lot of Italians who sided with Garibaldi, and a lot who didn’t. And [for] the ones who didn’t, pan-Slavic anarchism was becoming very big. It was associated with all sorts of workers unions in Europe, especially in Italy.
Anarchism and socialism and even communism were very, very strong in the first half of the 20th century, especially in New York, among Jewish people and Italians. You could see how the thread came through.
TCR: You write that your great-grandparents had worked on the docks in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, and were most likely anarchists, as the docks were a “hotbed” for “radical political thinking.” Do you think your father’s sense of justice and vocation as a lawyer is rooted in this family history?
LaRossa: The more I looked at it, the more I could see that it was too coincidental that my great-grandparents owned a longshoremen’s restaurant on the docks. Before sitting down to write the book, there were a lot of things I had never really considered before. I lived in Rome for almost two years, so I knew quite a bit about Garibaldi. There is a statue of him on one of the seven hills in Rome. And still to this day, there is a group who likes him, and group who doesn’t. There is a real anarchistic streak in the urban Italians. You can see how my great-grandparents could have very easily been born from that group.
My grandfather, “Pop,” was a very straight-up conservative kind of guy. He insisted that my father and his sister not speak any Italian. He wanted them to integrate. He worked as a postman. Even through the Depression, he was one of the few Italians who had a job. The Italian-Americans of my grandfather’s generation didn’t want to admit to any political rationale. I think they wanted to integrate right away. They wanted to forget all that. They wanted to get right [away] involved in American politics.
My father was a much more radical thinker. I don’t know if it’s because he was brought up by the Jesuits, or as a sort of rebelliousness against his own parents. He was a real Kennedy-era Democrat. He became very powerful in the Democratic Party. He was very, very involved in the anti-defamation movement in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
TCR: You discuss in the book how your father influenced your political and social consciousness. Your father recognized that while decisions and power flow from the top down, the boss at the top was rarely the one held accountable. This dynamic becomes especially apparent with the passage of the RICO Act, which was used in the 1980s to prosecute the Mafia. In the past, the hitman was the one who got charged, since the bosses were never the ones to pull the trigger. The RICO Act, instead, you write, “treat[ed] the entire mob family as a top to bottom animal.”
LaRossa: What would happen is that the government would indict a bunch of mobsters who were directly implicated in the trial. This was before RICO. They would put those guys in jail, whereas the head of the family would still be intact, and they would just bring in a whole new group and the criminal enterprise would go on and exist as if nothing had happened.
During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the Gambinos were so big at that point that they eclipsed the entire mob in Italy. That one family in New York. They just controlled literally everything from concrete to building to restaurants. They had just become monolithic. The government realized that if they were going to go anywhere with these groups they were going to have to figure a way to indict, try, and convict the heads of the family.
RICO just goes to show that the federal government didn’t really know what an incredible resource they had, because although the statute was approved by Congress in 1970, it wasn’t used until 1979. The Scotto trial was the first RICO case ever tried in 1979.
TCR: Anthony Scotto, the labor union leader, whom your father represented in Scotto v the United States?
LaRossa: That was an amazing trial. The cross-examination of the main witness took three or four days. It was a really intense trial. Everybody, but everybody, was looking at them because that was going to be the test and it passed the test. RICO then was stretched and stretched and stretched. So much so that Hell’s Angels were indicted on RICO violations.
There is no doubt that RICO has been the most successful criminal statute ever written by the feds. It really revolutionized the way mob trials were conducted.
TCR: When Rudy Giuliani became District Attorney in the Southern District of New York in 1983, he made a name for himself for his aggressive prosecution of the Mafia. During Giuliani’s tenure, your father was a high-profile defense lawyer for several Mafia families. What was it like for your father to work as a defense attorney in the Giuliani era?
LaRossa: Let’s start with right now, looking at what’s happening with Giuliani today, you can see that this is a guy who is willing to swallow the poison pill and go all the way. So that’s exactly how he was as the new U.S. Attorney in the Southern District.
It became a very, very aggressive office. Giuliani, unethically, but smartly, realized that there was this prominent group of lawyers who were winning a lot of these cases. My father amongst them.
They used a lot of unorthodox and really unethical ways of knocking lawyers out of trials. The way they did it was to [hint] that these lawyers were somehow involved with organized crime themselves, that they were the ‘consiglieri.’ Giuliani tried to say my father was a consigliere to the Gambinos, the Colombos, to the Luchese families. This was a ridiculous assertion on its face. As we know, each family could have only one consigliere. If he worked for one of them, it would have been impossible for him to be the in-house legal mind for others.
So it was a patently bogus thing, but Giuliani was successful in severing my father from a number of trials. And other criminal trial lawyers as well. He really used it as a brutal cudgel and that was the beginning of the end of any collegiality between the prosecution and the defense.
This continued for the next 20 or 30 years as prosecutors saw what Giuliani had made of himself. He became a very notorious, successful guy, and, modeling themselves after him, they decided to conduct themselves the same way. All of a sudden, [defense] lawyers became targets. My father always had to worry about keeping his nose clean, so that nobody could throw any BS his way.
Perhaps it’s not fair to blame it all on Giuliani, It wasn’t so much a personality thing that made my father dislike Giuliani so much; it was that he cast dispersions against defense lawyers.
TCR: Your father started out on the staff of the U.S. attorney in Manhattan. What triggered his transition from prosecutor to defense attorney?
LaRossa: There is a minute reason and then there is a much larger reason. The minute reason is that one day [then-US Attorney General Robert] Kennedy called [my father] about a skyjacking case. Kennedy knew my father because he was a political appointee through Tammany Hall. The era of skyjackings had begun in the early 1960s, and the White House wanted to send a signal to Americans that the United States wouldn’t tolerate this type of behavior.
My father begged him. He said look, there are mitigating circumstances. This guy is a World War 2 hero. Let me talk to him and report back to you. [But Kennedy] was firm. He said no, I want the book thrown at this guy. I want him to get the max. And that was the first reason I can really point to [when] my father wanted to go to the defense bar. He really didn’t want to be a prosecutor any more.
The other thing, too, is my father was a kid from Brooklyn, so he wanted to make money. He felt that in his three or four years at the justice department he had done everything that he could do.
TCR: In your father’s New York Times obituary, there is a quote from People Magazine, where he says about defending allegedly guilty clients, “I am not proving their innocence. I am attempting to stop the prosecution from proving their guilt.” That says a lot about how the criminal justice system works in the U.S. Do you think that quote encapsulates the way your father practiced the law?
LaRossa: He had a job to do, and he took it very seriously. He was an old-world guy who believed that his job and his role in the criminal justice system was mandated by the Constitution. He realized very early that as a defense lawyer, that if he got caught up in his clients’ guilt and innocence, he wouldn’t be able to do his job in a first-class way.
He was one of these defense lawyers who would really rather not know whether his client was guilty or innocent. He really didn’t. He was going to try the fact pattern against the law. He was being very factual. His job wasn’t to prove the person’s innocence. It was to prove that the government didn’t [prove] guilt without a reasonable doubt—that the jury had reasonable doubt in the government’s [case].
Now at that point in the late 1970s when he gave that interview in People Magazine, he was already the go-to defense lawyer in New York. So consequently a lot of his cases were high profile, highly publicized cases, whether it was the mob, or lawyers, or politicians. He started getting a reputation as a hired gun. it was obvious to some people that [in] a lot of these cases the people were obviously guilty. He [felt the need] to explain himself.
He doesn’t get involved in whether someone is guilty or whether somebody is innocent. He just wanted to prove that there was enough reasonable doubt for the jury to acquit. He fought the prosecution at every turn. You didn’t go to my father if you wanted a plea deal. You just didn’t. You went to my father when the only other option was a full blown trial.
‘He Wasn’t a Tough Guy’
LaRossa: He was considered by everybody as a really singular talent. But he would always stay above the fray. He wasn’t a tough guy. He wasn’t a mobster. He was the lawyer, and everybody knew there were certain things they could say around him and certain things they couldn’t say around him. They really respected him and kind of loved him. And when I started to write the book, I asked a person who was a colleague of dad, “What made him tick? He was a great lawyer and real intellect. Why did he like these mobsters so much?” And the colleague said “Your father couldn’t have been [more] different than these guys intellectually, but they were very charismatic and fun loving, and so was your father.”
They loved that about him. They had fun and he wanted to have fun. There were no guns or threats or anything around him. It was all in the up and up. They would meet in very public places and everybody was on their best behavior. It was always usually the top echelons of mobsters. But I can tell you this in terms of our house in Connecticut and our apartment in New York. I don’t ever recall meeting a single solitary mobster in our home.
TCR: He became such a public personality. Did it ever overshadow his work and his clients?
LaRossa: I think it was [an issue]. Sometimes [politicians] couldn’t go to him because that would signal to the world in general how much trouble they were in and it would get more press. He kind of shot himself in the foot with that. I guess that’s the case with a lot of people who become kind of bigger than life. He did turn down a lot of cases. But clients turned him down too.
If you were indicted and you wanted to fly under the radar—so that all of the newspapers wouldn’t be covering it every day—you would think, hey, if I hire this guy, I am going to be in all the newspapers every day. So there were some clients who didn’t hire him for that very reason.
TCR: Your memoir might bring some renewed attention to your father and his legacy. What kind of legacy would you want for your father?
LaRossa: He tried so many big profile cases. If nothing else, I hope that people realize how he changed the criminal defense bar in the latter half of the 20th century in America.
The other thing that I really want people to realize is something that only me and his closest friends realized: through all of this crazy stuff that happened to him, he was just the most joyous man I have ever known. I’ve never met a guy, and I probably never will, who loved life as much as he did. He was so interested in people and so interested in life and that’s what made him a good lawyer. You have this very accomplished guy who had amazing courtroom presence, and was considered the most amazing cross-examiner since Clarence Darrow.
Julia Pagnamenta is a contributing writer to The Crime Report