Thursday, October 23, 2008

"Donnie Brasco" Refuses to Testify at Murder Trial

by Donna Weaver

Last month
I wrote about the start of the murder trial of former FBI agent John Connolly, Jr. The prosecution has rested and this week the defense began calling its witnesses. One of those witnesses is perhaps one of the FBI's most famous agents, Joseph D. Pistone, AKA Donnie Brasco (pictured left). You'll notice Mr. Pistone is standing at a podium, speaking into a microphone, and is not attempting to disguise his appearance in any way. There are several such photographs available on the Internet. So why did Pistone refuse to testify in defense of his old friend John Connolly unless Judge Blake granted his request for an order allowing no photographs or filming of Pistone on the witness stand?

If you are not already familiar with former agent Pistone's legendary undercover work for the FBI, you may recognize the name Donnie Brasco from the 1997 film of the same name starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. The movie depicts the six years of Pistone's life spent undercover as jewel thief Donnie Brasco. Pistone claims that as a result of his infiltration of the Bonanno crime family a $500,000 hit was put out on him for his perceived betrayal when it was discovered he was an FBI agent just doing his job.

Judge Stanford Blake offered to let Pistone take the stand wearing a hat and sunglasses, but defense attorney Manuel L. Casabielle said that wasn't good enough because Pistone had told them that his wife didn't want him to be photographed at all.

Casabielle explained that after Pistone infiltrated New York's Bonanno family in 1976 and helped put away numerous mobsters, the five New York Mafia families had allegedly put a contract on his life.

"He's not in witness protection,'' said Blake, noting that in the decades since he went undercover Pistone has been a very public figure, promoting his two books, appearing on television, and all over the Internet -- his face clearly recognizable.

Holding a recent photograph of Pistone that had been pulled from a website, Blake said, "Unless his disguise was combed back thinning hair and glasses that were so crystal clear you couldn't see them, there does not appear to be any disguise.''

Blake said he just couldn't justify an order barring photographs of Pistone. However, the judge said he would find Pistone in contempt if he refused to comply with a subpoena from the defense seeking his testimony. But, Connolly told the court he didn't want to force Pistone to take the stand.

"He's a friend of mine,'' Connolly told the judge. "His wife is a friend of mine. I know his children. If something happened to him I couldn't live with myself.''

Years ago during the course of a missing person investigation, I received some personal photos from one of the "bad guys" involved in another undercover FBI operation. I was astonished when I was told the identity of one of the persons in two of the photographs—Joe Pistone. After I received the photos, I set out to find the famous former agent. I have to tell you it wasn't that difficult. I was certain I had the right guy, went to his house, and walked right up and knocked on his door using a pretext in an attempt to obtain an ID photo of him—pretty standard stuff. A rather nervous, confused-looking woman answered the door. It appeared no one else was at home. I waited, watching the house for a while, but he never showed. I did not have the time to put any more effort into the surveillance then. Of course, if I am ever again ready to interview Pistone regarding my case, all I have to do now is show up at one of his book signings or some other public appearance.

The old contract-out-on-my-life-for-over-a-quarter-century excuse for not testifying in defense of his long-time pal (Connolly and Pistone pictured left at Connolly's retirement in 1990) seems pretty lame to me. Could this just be a ploy by the defense to cast doubt on Connolly's guilt by implying his actions in handling his confidential informants could be likened to the undercover work of Pistone/Brasco? If so, this ploy may well backfire for the defense. By not putting Pistone on the stand, it gives the impression of more smoke and mirrors attempting to cover up FBI arrogance and possible wrongdoing.

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