Gleeson, a serious young man, got a chance at redemption in 1992, now as the prosecutorial point man in a new Gotti trial on charges dominated by murder and racketeering. This time, prosecutors built an airtight case, sealed with help from a Gotti crime family underboss named Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano. He became what back then was a rarity on a par with Halley’s Comet: a mob turncoat. Gravano, a stone-cold killer who was himself indicted, grasped that a conviction was likely and that he’d be better off working with the feds and then being reborn in the witness protection program after a short prison spell. As a witness, he excelled. In short order, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and Gotti went off to prison, there to die of throat cancer in 2002 at 61.
Gleeson, a lawyer in private practice these days, is an able storyteller, though readers may find themselves flailing now and then in the dense weeds of who’s who and who did what. Maybe this is hard to avoid, given that the writer lists at the get-go the vast array of wiseguys, lawyers, investigators and politicians, almost 200 of them, who will turn up in his narrative. There is the stray ugh-inducing phrase — using “hail of bullets” may qualify as a predicate offense — and at least one wince-inducing error. Henry Morgenthau Jr., the father of the longtime prosecutor Robert Morgenthau, was not John F. Kennedy’s Treasury secretary, as Gleeson writes. He served Franklin D. Roosevelt and, briefly, Harry Truman.
But the imperfections are more than offset by keen insights and neat turns of phrase. “Anyone thinking of a life in the mob ought to consider their likely nickname ahead of time,” Gleeson says. Sound counsel. Of a defense lawyer in a bind, he observes, with some sympathy, that “at worst it could land him in the trunk of a car.” Along the way, he offers a primer on the challenges of bringing career criminals to justice, on the inherent risks for “relocated wiseguys” forced to testify, on the pros and cons of wiretaps, on handling outrages like an unjustified smear of him and a fellow prosecutor by a lowlife testifying on Gotti’s behalf.
Gleeson’s distaste for some colleagues and adversaries is also evident. The turf battles between federal and state prosecutors could drive a teetotaler to drink. Rudolph Giuliani, Manhattan’s chief federal prosecutor in the 1980s, comes across as self-absorbed. Few fare worse than a prominent defense lawyer, Bruce Cutler, who may want to give this book a pass, portrayed as he is here as a bellowing courtroom blowhard, and not a notably competent one at that.
On occasion, Gleeson doesn’t spare himself. He ineptly handles his first arraignment as a prosecutor. He can be vain, admitting to enjoying the attention he gets from his time in Gotti’s reflected fame. More crucially, he acknowledges not having fully appreciated the sheer terror felt by ordinary citizens summoned to sit in judgment of a man like Gotti, a menacing presence at the defense table. Some prospective jurors were so unnerved that they “even burst into tears the moment they looked at him.”