We are almost at the end of our mini-series about Tom’s experience as a juror on the Operation Family Secrets trial. We asked mafia expert and author Scott Burnstein if he’d be interested in interviewing Tom to gain a juror’s perspective of the trial he also witnessed.
We are thrilled that he took us up on the offer.
To catch up on the entire series, you can visit this page.
Inside the mind of a juror is a valuable piece of property. People pay millions of dollars a year in legal fees for the notion that their respective trial attorneys have a concrete idea of what those 12 men and woman sitting in that jury box are thinking, what resides in the minds of a dozen total and random strangers.
The more high-profile the trial a jury is hearing, the more valuable that space becomes. When its hearing the most extensive federal mob case the nation has seen in 20 years, it’s practically priceless.
So when Tom King, Juror No. 264 in the infamous “Family Secrets Trial,” a widespread racketeering and murder case involving several high-ranking members of the Chicago mafia and an epic four-month long courtroom drama in which I authored my second book on, offered to share his and the rest of the jury’s thoughts on the trial, I jumped at the opportunity.
Just like King, I had sat through and witnessed first-hand the fascinating and emotionally-charged trial that took place surrounded by a circus-like atmosphere in the summer and early fall of 2007.
The storyline was transfixing: 18 gangland homicides and a twisted family soap opera which saw lunatic Windy City mob hitman Frank “Frankie the Breeze” Calabrese have his son and brother, both fearsome mob soldiers in their own right, turn against him and testify on behalf of the government in court. Oh, let us not forget the presence of legendary 76- year old Chicago mob consigliere, Joseph “Joey the Clown” Lombardo, one of the nation’s most charismatic gangsters of the last half-century, who found himself caught up in the Family Secrets indictment, implicated as a shooter in one of the most heinous of all the murders – the killing of civilian Danny Seifert in front of his wife and young son in a Bensenville office complex – and kept the courtroom in stitches throughout the trial with his dry wit from the defense table.
We both saw the whole thing with our own eyes, the blood, the betrayal, the callousness, the greed and the tight grip, that even today in the 21st century, an organization that has long been declared dead by a myriad of experts and academics, can and does have over an entire city. But we saw it from different perspectives and with different motives. Close to four years later, I was eager to get the rundown from a man that could shed personal light on what the mindset was inside the jury box those fateful and thrilling days and weeks while they heard testimony and arguments on the biggest mob case in Chicago history.
“It was a tremendously rewarding experience and an incredibly emotionally draining experience at the same time,” said King reflecting back. “There wasn’t a dull moment, that’s for sure. I was on the edge of my seat for every single day we were in court, with the exception of maybe one afternoon where there was a little bit of boring testimony. But that was one day in four months, so I think that’s pretty good because you hear a lot of horror stories about these tedious and boring stints as jurors. In a lot ways, it was like watching one of those CSI or Law and Order-type shows live and in person.”
When King, who makes his living in convention management and has lived in the Chicagoland area his entire life, was called to appear for jury duty downtown at the Dirksen Federal Building that June day in 2007, he had no idea the life-altering adventure he was about to encounter.
“I had never been called for jury duty before, so I had no clue what to expect,” he said. “I got down there and I got a questionnaire asking if I had any moral or religious objections to gambling and prostitution and stuff like that. I didn’t know anything really about the mob in Chicago, other than knowing who Joey Lombardo was because he had been in the news a lot over the years. We were brought in front of all the attorneys in the court room and asked some more questions and then they told me I was on the jury. They put us all together in a room and we all introduced ourselves. It wasn’t long before we became very close, almost like a family because you’re all in this place that nobody beside the people next to you in that box can understand. It becomes almost like a bunker mentality.”
On defendant Frank Calabrese, fingered in participating in 13 of the 18 murder charged in the case.
“He came off very unstable to us,” said King of the perception Calabrese left on the jury. “The guy was scary. It was easy to believe he would have done the things they said he did.”
On defendant Joey Lombardo, who King believes hurt his chance of acquittal by taking the stand in his own defense.
“Lombardo came off like your grandfather,” he said. “He was funny and charming in small pieces but when he testified his shtick got old fast and it became obvious he was lying about a lot of stuff. He didn’t need to get up there. He might have saved himself if he didn’t. The case the government had against him for the murder of Danny Siefert was very weak. All they had was a finger print on a car rental slip. That’s not much. But when you get up on the stand and it seems like you’re lying about some things, it’s not a stretch to think you’re lying about other things.”
On defendant Jimmy Marcello, who was alleged by the prosecution to have been the “acting boss” of the Chicago mafia at the time of his arrest in 2005 and implicated in two of the murders charged.
“Marcello was hurt by Frank Calabrese, whose aura of craziness kind of spread across the defense table,” King said. “The evidence against Marcello on the murders wasn’t the strongest either. I think sitting next to Calabrese the whole time, at least in some ways, worked against him. From our perspective as a jury, the most memorable thing about Jimmy Marcello was how young and attractive his girlfriend was.”
On the government’s two star witnesses, Nick Calabrese and Frank Calabrese Jr.
“They were both extremely believable,” he said. “The fact that they were testifying against their own flesh and blood made you trust more because you knew how hard that must have been on them. Nick made the case for the prosecution. He gave so much information in his testimony. One time when he was talking about one of the murders, he got choked. You could see his emotions and his guilt. That helped ingratiate him to the jury. Frank Jr. went to the government on his own accord, without facing any charges, so that went to his credibility as well.”
On the prosecutorial team of, John Scully, Mitch Mars and Markus Funk
“The prosecution did an excellent job,” he said. “The opening argument by Scully was very powerful. Mars and Funk were great on their cross-exams. They came off very professional, hardworking and trustworthy.”
On Lombardo’s attorney, Rick Halprin
“Halprin was by far the best of the defense attorneys,” he said. “He was very charming and obviously knew his way around a courtroom. You could tell he was smart and he was very quick on his feet when addressing us as a jury or a witness on the stand.”
On Calabrese attorney, Joe Lopez
“Our feeling on Lopez was the polar opposite of how we felt about Halprin,” he said. “Lopez came off like a buffoon. He was smarmy and it was hard to believe what he was selling us. I mean the guy dressed like he was going to a disco not a courtroom. That didn’t help either. It gave off the vibe of a used car salesman. We just didn’t like him. And when you don’t like an attorney, it’s hard to like his client. And when that client is already an unlikeable character, it’s just a bad mix.”
All five of the 14 total defendants in the Family Secrets case that made it to trial were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Scott M. Burnstein is the author of “Family Affair – Greed, Treachery and Betrayal in the Chicago Mafia” released in the spring of 2010 by Berkley-Putnam (Penguin). He is based in Detroit and also the author of “Motor City Mafia – A Century of Organized Crime in the city of Detroit,” a regional bestseller in 2007; and the forthcoming “Detroit True Noir – Chronicles of Murder and Mayhem in the Motor City,” set for release by Camino Books in the fall of 2011.
A graduate of Indiana University in 1999, Burnstein received his law degree in 2004 from the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois and has been reporting on both the Detroit and Chicago underworld for the past six years. He is currently writing legendary mobster Philip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti’s biography.
A recognized expert and historian in the field of organized crime, he has been featured in numerous television shows – including the History Channel’s hit show, Gangland –, and several movie documentaries commenting on underworld politics. In 2009, he produced, wrote and starred in the critically-acclaimed documentary, “Detroit Mob Confidential.” Burnstein works for the Oakland Press newspaper in suburban Detroit and his writing has appeared in the Detroit Free Press, Ambassador Magazine, Chicago Magazine and on line with AOL.