Disgraced ex-FBI agent John Connolly — convicted and jailed in a decades-old Miami murder tied to notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger — has a sudden and shocking shot at freedom.
The reason: A technical error committed by Miami-Dade prosecutors who won his second-degree murder conviction in 2008, a Florida appeals court has ruled.
In a divided decision, the state Third District Court of Appeal panel on Wednesday threw out his conviction and 40-year prison sentence, concluding that Connolly should not have been been charged with that offense in the 1982 mob hit of a Miami Jai-Alai executive because the statute of limitations had run out.
“We’re very happy,” said his defense attorney, Manny Casabielle, whose last appeal was denied in 2011. “I wholly believe the ruling of the Third DCA this time around is correct.”
Despite the panel’s stunning 2-1 ruling in his client’s favor, Connolly will remain behind bars until all further appeals are exhausted, according to a stay.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said her office will ask the full appellate bench to rehear the case and, if that fails, take it to the Florida Supreme Court.
“We’re disappointed in the court’s decision,” Rundle told The Miami Herald. “We will continue our commitment to this case and this issue.”
A hit man testified in the 2008 trial that he fatally shot World Jai-Alai President John Callahan after Connolly tipped Boston mob boss Bulger and his lieutenant, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, that the executive would implicate them in the previous murder of the company’s owner, Roger Wheeler.
The contract killer, John Martorano, responded weeks later by shooting Callahan dead, leaving his corpse in a Cadillac trunk at Miami International Airport.
Connolly, now 73, was 1,500 miles away in Massachusetts when the hit went down.
At trial, prosecutors tried Connolly on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Instead, the jury came back with a conviction of second-degree murder with a firearm — a lesser included offense. Prosecutors then reclassified that conviction from a first-degree felony to a life felony.
Prosecutors maintained Connolly did use a gun because, three weeks before the slaying, he carried his FBI service weapon while slipping mobsters the information that sealed Callahan’s demise.
His defense attorneys challenged that argument, saying prosecutor Michael Von Zamft improperly used that allegation to enhance the second-degree murder charge to one potentially punishable by life in prison. That way, there would be no statute of limitations.
The prosecution’s strategy now appears to have backfired.
In the latest ruling, the three-judge panel determined that Connolly’s conviction for second-degree murder with a firearm was barred by the four-year statute of limitations applicable at the time.
“Connolly’s conviction for second-degree murder with a firearm should not have been reclassified to a life felony in order to circumvent the statute of limitation,” wrote Chief Judge Frank A. Shepherd and Judge Richard J. Suarez in the majority opinion. “Without the fundamentally erroneous reclassification, the first-degree felony of second-degree murder was time-barred.”
Judge Leslie B. Rothenberg dissented, writing that “a careful review of the record and the case law demonstrates that no fundamental error has occurred” in the second-degree murder conviction. On the contrary, she wrote that “the majority’s decision … to forever discharge him from prosecution of the crime proven in this case is grave error.”
Connolly has long denied a role in Callahan’s slaying. Trial testimony showed he was in Massachusetts when Callahan was killed by Bulger’s hit man, Martorano, who made a deal with prosecutors in return for his testimony in Connolly’s case and others.
Bulger, 84, was a fugitive for 16 years before his 2011 capture at an apartment in Santa Monica, California. He was convicted in August 2013 of a host of crimes in a racketeering indictment, including playing a role in 11 murders while he led a violent gang. Bulger is serving a life sentence in federal prison but is appealing.
Connolly was convicted in 2002 of racketeering for his dealings with Bulger’s gang, mainly protecting them from prosecution and tipping them about informants in their ranks. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in that case. He has completed that sentence.
A star FBI agent in Boston in the 1970s and ’80s, Connolly was accused of becoming corrupted by his star informants: Bulger and Flemmi, the notorious Winter Hill gang leaders.
The corruption saga became Boston crime lore. Bulger had been the FBI’s second most wanted fugitive after Osama bin Laden. Bulger and Connolly served as loose inspiration for the 2006 movie The Departed, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson.
In Boston, the decision by the Florida appeals court sent shockwaves through the families of those murdered by Bulger’s gang.
“This makes me want to pull the hair out of my head,” Steven Davis told the Boston Herald Wednesday. “It’s sick what they are putting us through. It’s sad. I just can’t believe it.”
Davis, whose sister Debra was murdered by Bulger’s henchman, Flemmi, said he feared Connolly had an exit strategy when the banned G-man did not appear at last summer’s blockbuster trial of Bulger.
“I knew something was up in my heart. Something was up and I was wondering if he was making a deal for himself,” Davis said. “They should bring Connolly back to Massachusetts now and charge him under the RICO Act.”