Florida prosecutors urged a state appeals court Thursday to reinstate the murder conviction of former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. for his role in a 1982 slaying that was allegedly orchestrated by notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.
The Florida attorney general’s office wrote in a motion to the Third District Court of Appeals that the court had “overlooked or misapprehended certain points of law and fact” last month when it overturned Connolly’s 2008 conviction for the slaying of Boston businessman John B. Callahan decades earlier in Florida.
The attorney general’s office said a 2-to-1 ruling by the appeals court panel that reversed Connolly’s conviction failed to resolve questions “of great public importance” and asked for a clarification on those issues and a rehearing before all 10 judges on the appeals court.
“All of this is pretty much a delay tactic,” said Florida attorney Manuel Casabielle, who represented Connolly during his 2008 trial in Miami. “It is inevitable that John’s conviction is going to be set aside.”
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, whose office prosecuted Connolly and is working with the attorney general’s office on the appeal, said state prosecutors are pursuing an appeal because they made a commitment to the case that remains strong.
“This appeal is all about technicalities,” Rundle said. “Nobody, nowhere has said he is innocent. . . . We believe that we have to get beyond the technicalities and really look at who he was and what he did.”
Callahan’s widow, Mary of Burlington, said during a telephone interview Thursday that if Connolly is freed, she will find solace in the fact that he received some punishment for his crimes. “He served a lot of time already,” Callahan said. “His reputation is ruined; he’s ruined with the FBI. . . . He has to live with that forever.”
Connolly, 73, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2009 for his role in Callahan’s slaying, grew up in the same South Boston housing development as Bulger and recruited him as an informant in 1975.
After an eight-week trial in 2008, a Florida jury found Connolly guilty of second-
degree murder with a gun for leaking information to Bulger and his sidekick Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi that prompted the gangsters to order Callahan’s death.
Flemmi testified at the trial that Connolly warned him and Bulger that the FBI was seeking Callahan for questioning and the businessman would probably implicate the gangsters in the 1981 killing of World Jai Alai owner Roger Wheeler.
Hitman-turned-government witness John Martorano told jurors that at the urging of Bulger and Flemmi, he lured Callahan to Florida and shot him to death. The 45-year-old executive’s body was found Aug. 2, 1982, in the trunk of his car at Miami International Airport.
Connolly began serving his sentence for Callahan’s murder in 2011, after he finished a 10-year prison term for a racketeering conviction in Boston.
Initially, the Florida appeals court upheld Connolly’s murder conviction and let his request for a rehearing languish for three years. Meanwhile, Bulger was captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in June 2011 after more than 16 years on the run, and was convicted in Boston last summer of participating in 11 murders, including Callahan’s, while running a sprawling criminal enterprise. Bulger, who is serving two life sentences at a federal prison in Tucson, insists he was never an informant, but rather, paid Connolly for confidential law enforcement information.
In May, the Florida appeals court reversed itself and agreed with Connolly’s defense, which had argued that his second-
degree murder conviction should be overturned because Connolly did not shoot Callahan and at the time of the slaying there was a four-year statute of limitations for second-degree murder in Florida unless a gun was used.
Prosecutors had argued that the conviction should stand because he was carrying his FBI weapon while meeting with Bulger and Flemmi as they plotted Callahan’s murder.
The appeals court found that the trial judge erred when he told jurors that if they did not find Connolly guilty of first-degree murder, they could consider a lesser charge of second degree murder while using a firearm. It was undisputed at trial that Connolly was hundreds of miles away, on Cape Cod, when Callahan was slain.
The court ordered Connolly to remain in prison until the final appeal is decided.
Cambridge attorney Peter Mullane, who has represented Connolly in the past and talks to him weekly by telephone, said that if the appeals court rejects the state’s motion and the Florida Supreme Court does not take the case, then Connolly could be freed in several months. “It might be a merry Christmas for the Connolly family, finally,” Mullane said.