In a shell-shocking written order, a federal judge ruled today that, despite overwhelming evidence of "heinous and violent crimes," the two retired detectives at the center of what has been known as the Mafia Cops corruption case should be acquitted of all federal rackeetering charges because the statute of limitations in their case had run out.
The ruling by the judge, Jack B. Weinstein of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, reverses almost in its entirety the conviction of the two detectives, Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, who were found guilty in April of some of the most spectacular corruption charges in the city's history. Although a jury found that Mr. Eppolito and Mr. Caracappa had participated, as paid assassins, in at least eight murders for the mob, the judge's order vacated the murder verdicts on legal — if not evidentiary — grounds.
"The evidence at trial overwhelmingly established the defendants' participation in a large number of heinous and violent crimes," Judge Weinstein wrote in his 77-page ruling. "Nevertheless an extended trial, evidentiary hearings, briefings and argument establishes that the five-year statute of limitations mandates granting the defendants a judgment of acquittal on the key charge against them — racketeering conspiracy."
The judge wrote that when the detectives moved to Las Vegas in the mid-1990's, their conspiracy in New York "had come to a definite close."
On June 5, the same judge issued the harshest punishment he could — life in prison — to Mr. Eppolito and Mr. Caracappa, deferring official imposition of the sentences so the two retired New York detectives could appeal. The judge called the men's crimes — they were convicted of taking part in at least eight murders for the mob — the "most heinous" he had ever seen in court.
Mr. Eppolito and Mr. Caracappa returned to court, with new lawyers to appeal their convictions on several grounds, including that they had received shoddy representation from their trial lawyers, Bruce Cutler and Edward Hayes.
Judge Weinstein did not find fault with the defense. He also said in court that even though the government's case was weak, it was enough — "just barely" — to convict.
"It was not a strong case," the judge acknowledged last month, "and the government was warned that from Day 1 . There is a sound basis for appeal."
Even before the case began, Judge Weinstein had said he had concerns about the case. Those centered on the statute of limitations, but in the absence of a startling revelation, he fell back on a fundamental tenet of the law: a jury's verdict, once rendered, should remain.
Today The Associated Press quoted Mr. Caracappa's former lawyer, Mr. Hayes, as saying: "I am very happy. It's exactly what we argued during the trial. I am very happy for my client, and I do feel it is a vindication of our trial strategy."