January 29, 1997
Is Little Nicky's upcoming murder trial worth the effort?
By Scott Farmelant
The assassination of Frank "Frankie Flowers" D'Alfonso in 1985 stood among the many murders which defined the reign of South Philly mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo. Through hits on D'Alfonso and mob captain Sal Testa, Scarfo revealed himself as a paranoid psychopath who ordered killings for the least of imagined slights.
Today, 68-year-old Scarfo is paying for his crimes of distrust and rage by way of consecutive 14- to 55-year federal prison sentences for multiple racketeering offenses. Still, District Attorney Lynne Abraham's office has dragged Scarfo away from a maximum-security Colorado jail to retry him for D'Alfonso's murder.
Scarfo's new trial, which begins Jan. 13 in the Court of Common Pleas, comes after state courts ruled that prosecutors erred during the diminutive don's 1989 trial. In that case, a jury also convicted Frank "Faffy" Ianarella, Joseph Ligambi, Salvatore Merlino, Lawrence "Yogi" Merlino, Nicholas Milano, plus brothers Frank and Phillip Narducci for the six shots that ended D'Alfonso's life on a sultry July night at the corner of Catherine and Percy Streets. The jury sentenced the entire crew to life in prison without parole.
Now Scarfo and Co. will spend six weeks in court, trying to win the second time around. This leads to a question: why are the authorities prosecuting Scarfo and five men who are serving prison terms which guarantee life behind bars?
"That's a good question," says Carmen Nasuti, a defense attorney who has represented organized crime figures such as Mario "Sonny" Riccobene and Angelo Bruno. "To me, [the trial] seems like a waste of taxpayers' money."
"It's a total waste of time," adds Donald F. Manno, the Camden-based attorney who represents Phil Narducci. "It serves no purpose at all to go through this process again. If someone had to sit down and justify spending this money, I don't know if they could."
Indeed, the price for holding Scarfo and Co. accountable for D'Alfonso's death will be steep, running into the millions of dollars. Though authorities with the DA's office, the FBI, the city's prison system and U.S. Marshall's Service never reveal the price of prosecution, Scarfo's case includes cross-country travel for six mob figures, the salary of several court-appointed attorneys, plus special courtroom security measures to protect three ex-mobsters including "Yogi" Merlino who are expected to testify against the Scarfo gang.
"It's going to cost a shit-load of money," says David McGlaughlin, the court-appointed lawyer who will defend Ianarella. "You wouldn't want to hear what I'm going to bill the city. I've got more hours billed than any other court-appointed case in my career, more than a lot of my court-appointed cases combined."
Defense attorneys associated with the case point to several factors in Abraham's decision to retry Scarfo. Topping the list is the chance to pin a first-degree murder rap directly on a mob chieftain.
"When [the Scarfo gang] was convicted the first time, it was trumpeted that this was the only time a major Mafia figure was convicted for first-degree murder," says McGlaughlin. "The prosecution sees this as a watershed event. Even John Gotti didn't go down for murder."
(Scarfo's attorney, Norris Gelman, declined comment.)
Next comes the rationale behind all criminal prosecutions no crime should go unpunished.
"They feel these guys committed the crime, [so] they don't want anybody to get out," says Joseph Santaguida, who represents Frank Narducci.
"The family of the deceased has a certain expectation of justice," adds Frank Friel, the former commanding officer of Philadelphia's organized crime task force and now director of the Bensalem Police Department. "D'Alfonso was brutally killed. That's a pretty compelling reason [for retrial]. We can't allow the idea that human life is insignificant to exist. We must always fight the perception that the mob can get away with any type of crime, including murder."
The timing of the retrial doesn't hurt Abraham either. As McGlaughlin, Santaguida and Nasuti note, the case will unfold during Abraham's quest for re-election.
"If I was [Abraham], I would certainly like my office to convict the head of the mob," says Nasuti. "I would love to have that in my bag if I'm running for re-election in November. The whole city will be reading about it."
If Abraham is seeking to nail a high profile mob figure (citing policy, DA spokesman Bill Davol declined comment), however, it angers Manno.
"This is not a Mafia trial," Manno says. "It's a murder trial, plain and simple."
Through the criticism, most of the defense lawyers agree that prosecutors have one valid reason to retry Scarfo and the gang. Ligambi, fingered as one of the shooters in D'Alfonso's murder, escaped a lengthy prison sentence during the gang's 1989 racketeering trial. If the DA's office chose not to retry Ligambi, he would walk free after serving a three-and-a-half-year stay in federal prison.
"If they don't try Scarfo, it could open the door for a selective prosecution [argument] by Ligambi," says Santaguida. "I guess the strength of this case is to bring up all these things about Nicky Scarfo. [Prosecutors] aren't crazy about bringing him back but...need him."
"Trying Ligambi alone would cut down the case, but Lynne Abraham and the people in the homicide unit don't think like that," adds McGlaughlin. "They think like prosecutors and that's not a dirty word. They see this as a major prosecution, a chance to further crush a known Mafia head. So they're trying the case."
Further, Friel argues that convicting Scarfo for D'Alfonso's murder is a "necessity," given that a successful appeal of his federal conviction would otherwise allow the mobster to walk free.
"If there is another appeal, and the appeal is granted, it could lead someone like Scarfo right out into freedom," Friel says.
For their part, prosecutors will ignore critics who see few reasons to retry Little Nicky.
"Trying cases is never a financial decision," says Davol.
"We should take pity on these people?" asks Arlene Fisk, the lawyer who will prosecute Scarfo along with Ed Cameron. "Sorry, but I'm going to pick a jury in three weeks."
"Every court battle is an extraordinarily costly process, but it's balanced out by the good society reaps... that this type of crime will not be tolerated," Friel says.
Nobody, however, denies one offshoot of the decision to retry Scarfo. The trial gives the aging killer a relative taste of freedom including the chance to visit with relatives and friends while holed up at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in the Northeast. That, say the lawyers, is nothing like the 23 and a half hours of lockdown Scarfo endures each day in federal prison.
"It's a little bit of a bonanza for [Scarfo]," says Santaguida.