By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
Call it the Soprano effect. To spectators at John A. Gotti's racketeering trial, it often seems as if life were imitating television, and that the airing of every intimate detail of the fictional mobster Tony Soprano's life has broken down a social code that once prevented real-life mobsters from exposing their private lives and peccadilloes, from girlfriends to illegitimate children, in public.
One of the prosecutors, Joon Kim, has led two turncoat mobsters, Michael DiLeonardo and Joseph D'Angelo, through recitations of their lives from blood oath to murder, with the calm, hypnotic manner of a psychoanalyst interrogating a patient.
But it is probably the assertive presence of the Gotti women in United States District Court in Manhattan that has marked the biggest departure from Mafia tradition. "Women have always been considered an inferior element in the Mafia," says Selwyn Raab, a retired New York Times reporter who chronicled the lives of the Gottis in his book "Five Families: The Rise, Decline and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires." "They are not supposed to intrude, not supposed to be involved in any way. One: to protect them. And two: that's the culture; that's the code."
Mr. Gotti's mother, Victoria, has attended every day of her son's trial since it began two weeks ago, and offered a window into the changing social mores of the mob.
Fifty, even 20 years ago, in the era depicted by the classic Godfather movies, Mafia wives and daughters were to be neither seen nor heard. But Mr. Gotti's trial has become more of a soap opera than the soaps, in which the Gotti women — led by Mr. Gotti's mother, but also joined by his sisters, Victoria and Angel, a niece named Victoria after her grandmother, and even the ex-wife of a Gambino captain — have played a central role.
Though the presence of Mafia wives at trials has not been unheard of in recent years, Mr. Raab said, Mrs. Gotti — the widow of John J. Gotti, celebrated as the Dapper Don and the Teflon Don before spending the last years of his life locked up in a maximum security penitentiary — never attended any of her husband's major trials. "He had four trials after he became boss, and she was never there," Mr. Raab said. Partly, he noted, that was because "they were on the outs," and she did not visit him in prison, either.
In this trial, however, which enters its third week today, the Gotti women have waged a public relations war for Mr. Gotti, speaking on his behalf outside of court, while he has focused on what goes on in the courtroom.
Every day, his mother and sister Angel have occupied center aisle seats in the second row, which is reserved for family members (both conventional relatives and the Cosa Nostra kind). Mr. Gotti's more flamboyant sister, Victoria, has appeared most days in the afternoon, drawing stares from tourists both because she resembles Donatella Versace, with hip-length blond tresses and flashy clothes, and because she is recognized as a novelist and hostess of the reality-TV show "Growing Up Gotti." (Mr. Gotti's wife, Kim, who is pregnant with their sixth child, has not attended.)
Lawyers said that in a trial that is something of a morality play, even Mr. Gotti's churchgoing could have an impact on the perception of the jury, since this jury includes several observant Catholics: On Ash Wednesday, five of the 16 jurors, including alternates, arrived in court for the morning session with their foreheads marked with black smudges. Mr. Gotti returned from lunch with ashes on his forehead.
On a recent day, a federal prosecutor led an F.B.I. agent through the list of people who visited Mr. Gotti while he was in prison.
As the prosecutor ticked off the names, one by one, the agent identified them each as an "associate" of the Gambino crime family, qualifying a couple by adding "and lifelong friend."
The judge called a break, and Mr. Gotti's mother called to his lawyer, Charles Carnesi: "Hey, Charles. Did you tell them that I am an associate, and my daughter, too, and my granddaughter?"
It was a typically acerbic reaction for Mrs. Gotti, whose comments are not always appreciated. "Mom, please, I got this under control," Mr. Gotti protested another time.
The racketeering charges against Mr. Gotti are so diffuse that much of the court battle has focused not on the charges but on his private life. Besides, the charges against him — loan-sharking, extortion and kidnapping — are not nearly as serious as the murder charges that the two star prosecution witnesses have confessed to as part of their cooperation agreement with the government. In his defense, Mr. Gotti says he left the mob life years ago, when he realized how much it could hurt his wife and children.
The Gotti family has been particularly angered by testimony from Mr. DiLeonardo, the turncoat Gambino captain who said that Mr. Gotti dated a woman named Mindy during his marriage and that his father had a secret second family and a daughter out of wedlock.
Three days after Mr. DiLeonardo's testimony, the Gotti family called in reinforcements. John J. Gotti's oldest granddaughter, Victoria Gotti Albano, 18, arrived at the courthouse, saying, "We always stick together." Wearing a large necklace spelling out the word "princess," which she said her grandfather had given her, she sat between her mother, Angel, and grandmother for the rest of the week. Ms. Albano, a freshman at U.C.L.A., said she wanted to become a lawyer to avenge the wrongs she said the government had inflicted on her family. Her grandmother volunteered that the teenager's role model was Ron Kuby, a civil rights lawyer. Mrs. Gotti, who is, in the traditional mold, a Queens homemaker, is supportive of her granddaughter's career goals, even confiding in the hallway outside the courtroom that the idea of being called "Ms." Gotti appealed to her.
"She's liberated," Mr. Raab said, not sounding 100 percent convinced.
The more traditional "Married to the Mob" role in this courtroom drama has been played by Mr. DiLeonardo's ex-wife, Toni Marie Ricci, who appeared as a defense witness to testify on the distress that her husband's infidelity caused her and their teenage son, Michael. Asked by prosecutors last week whether she knew that her ex-husband, her father, brother, uncle and cousin were all associated with the Gambino crime family, she replied that she was "just a housewife and mother" who did not concern herself with such things.
If Mrs. Gotti doesn't always adhere to type, Mr. Raab said, that may be because her ancestry is Russian on her mother's side. Her mixed antecedents were a problem when it came time for her son to be inducted into the Mafia, Mr. Raab said, because Mafia rules required both parents of a "made" member to be of Italian descent. The senior Gotti solved the problem by changing the rule to require patrilineal descent only, Mr. Raab said.
Mrs. Gotti seemed more outraged by what she saw as the prosecution's sanctimonious attitude than by the suggestion that her husband had had affairs, a rumor that, after all, had been alluded to in books and whispered by government agents. If the government was going to prosecute womanizers, she said, "we should hang all our presidents."
It was another remark worthy of a Soprano, although Mrs. Gotti was coy when asked whether she ever watched the show. "I really would love to because I think it's an entertaining program," she said. "But if there's a really good movie on, or "20-20," or something on the Discovery Channel, I would rather watch that."