By Philip Newman
But Gotti's lawyer told a jury of seven men and five women in federal court in Manhattan that his client had turned away from life as the head of the Gambino crime family and was not responsible for the attack on Sliwa. Gotti is on trial for a second time on kidnapping and racketeering charges. The Howard Beach native was acquitted of securities fraud charges in September, but the jury could not agree on more serious racketeering charges, resulting in a retrial. Gotti could get up to 30 years in prison if convicted on the most serious charges. As the trial opened in a dark wood-paneled courtroom in the Southern District of New York in downtown Manhattan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joon Hyun Kim told the jury that Gotti ordered thugs to kidnap and shoot Sliwa “because Sliwa exercised his constitutional right to speak publicly” in radio comments that reviled the elder John Gotti. The elder Gotti known as the “Dapper Don,” who took over the Gambino crime family in December 1985 with the rubout of Paul Castellano in front of Sparks steakhouse in Manhattan, was convicted of racketeering and several murders in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2002.”This man led a life of crime as the leader of the nation's most powerful Mafia organization,” said Kim, who stood at a lectern facing the jury for more than an hour as he outlined his case against Jr. Gotti. Kim said the younger Gotti had never done an honest day's work and “never did his own dirty work.” “He dealt in violence, intimidation and bloodshed. He directed hundreds of street-level thugs,” Kim said. “He was a monster.” On June 19, 1992, Sliwa hailed a taxi in Manhattan's East Village. It turned out to be a stolen cab and a gunman crouching on the floor of the front of the taxi rose up and shot Sliwa twice. Sliwa found the back door handles had been removed but managed to leap through the front side window and onto the pavement even though he was gravely wounded. “That's how they made Curtis Sliwa pay for exercising his right to free speech,” Kim said. Gotti's attorney, Charles Carnsei, who frequently strode up to the jury box and looked into jurors' faces as he spoke, questioned Sliwa's reliability as to the identity of his attackers. “Within a few weeks of the attack, Sliwa began holding news conferences naming my client as the person who ordered him kidnapped and shot,” Carnsei said, adding that his assailant in the stolen taxi wore a bandana that covered his nose and mouth and a cap had been drawn over one eye, suggesting that Sliwa still had no idea who he was. At one point, Kim explained to the jurors the arrangements under which people who “tell the truth and offer substantial assistance” to prosecutors can benefit by the prosecution writing a letter to the sentencing judge in a recommendation for a lighter sentence. But Carnsei said: “If someone were to tell the truth by saying that John Gotti had nothing to do with the attack on Curtis Sliwa, that's not offering substantial assistance to the prosecutor.” Suggesting that some felons might be unreliable as witnesses, Carnsei said “in plea bargaining, the coin of the realm is the word 'Gotti.' If you are willing to say 'Gotti,' you can get almost anything.” Carnsei said Gotti loved his father, but that devotion did not result in his directing an attack on Sliwa. “He had the courage to walk away from that life,” Carnsei said. Gotti has been free on $7 million bond since the deadlocked jury but must apply for permission to leave his home in Oyster Bay, L.I. Many members of the Gotti family showed up in court for the opening of the trial.Reach contributing writer by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 136.