The case of People of New York vs. R. Lindley DeVecchio has now entered week two in the new Supreme Court building in downtown Brooklyn, and the parade of gangsters, molls, and G-men to the witness stand is expected to last several weeks more.
DeVecchio, a veteran former FBI agent, is on trial for allegedly helping his prized mob informant kill four foes. So far he’s heard the prosecution and its witnesses call him a disgrace to law enforcement, a man so callous that he shared a chuckle with his Mafia pal after the mobster blew away the ear of an attractive young woman in a barroom slaying. Three FBI agents have testified they grew so distrustful of DeVecchio they stopped telling him what they were doing.
There is worse to come. Gregory Scarpa Jr., the son of DeVecchio’s informant, who followed his father into the family business, is due to take the stand and claim that the agent fed his dad a steady diet of inside tips. The mobster’s longtime mistress, Linda Schiro, will also swear an oath to tell the truth and, according to the prosecution’s opening statement, explain how the agent sat in the couple’s Bensonhurst home and told Scarpa Sr. about those who were talking to law enforcement, and where they could be found.
There’s no jury to watch for its reaction to these accusations. Shortly before the trial began, the defendant opted, as is his right, for a bench trial in which the judge alone decides the verdict.
Supreme Court Justice Gustin Reichbach cautioned against it. “I’m a great believer in the jury system,” he told DeVecchio, “and in the common wisdom of citizens.”
There was also this: In the late 1960s, as a student activist at then-turbulent Columbia University, the judge himself had come under FBI surveillance. He later obtained some of those records through a Freedom of Information request. In court, he read a portion in which a witness had reported to the agency that Reichbach was “one of the most dangerous” members of the Students for a Democratic Society, an “extraordinarily powerful speaker” with “strong, charismatic appeal.”
The judge said he found the description “flattering and personally satisfying.” He wanted to put this on record, he said, as notice that any later claim of alleged anti-FBI bias on his part would be precluded. DeVecchio said that was fine with him, and the trial commenced.
But as the daily testimony has unfolded, the former agent could well be forgiven for having second thoughts as his gaze wanders about the courtroom where his fate is being decided.
For instance, to his right, above the empty jury box, there’s a large photo of Paul Robeson, the black American actor and singer who had the kind of communist ties that made DeVecchio’s old boss, J. Edgar Hoover, see deep Red. The photo captured Big Paul right as he was telling off the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949. “You are the un-Americans,” he is thundering. “And you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
Next to Robeson is a portrait of Nelson Mandela, the soft-spoken South African revolutionary who spent most of his life in prison before leading his nation out of apartheid.
If DeVecchio squints, he can peer at a likeness of Clarence Darrow that hangs further down the wall. Darrow was the attorney for the “damned,” as he called his clients, an assortment of anarchists, accused child murderers, and black men who had the nerve to shoot with good aim into a white lynch mob. There’s a sweet little quote under the Darrow picture, too. “True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else,” it reads.
Then, at the front of the room, there’s a sculpture of the scales of justice, depicted in bright neon tubes of red and blue. The sculpture beckons the eye like an all-night diner on a dark street. It hangs not far from where Judge Reichbach sits on the bench, resplendent as usual in tailored suit and shirt with rounded blue collar held by a gold stickpin.
The judge likes the piece so much he has hung it in his courtrooms for years. Presumably, it gives defendants like DeVecchio something to think about: What exactly is it that balances those scales of justice?
Some 40 years ago, when the judge and the defendant were both starting out, they had dramatically different notions on that score.
DeVecchio is the son of an Army colonel, and he joined the FBI in 1963. The bureau dispatched him to New York in 1967 to become a specialist in the investigation of organized crime, a then-burgeoning field for Hoover’s feds. If he hadn’t been tasked to chase the mob, he might well have probed Reichbach and his friends, who were then making themselves inviting targets for law enforcement.
The same year DeVecchio launched his Mafia pursuits, Reichbach was a law student at Columbia. As part of his studies he got himself arrested at an anti-draft protest at the old Whitehall Street induction center, along with Dr. Benjamin Spock and Allen Ginsberg.
Months later, Reichbach narrowly missed arrest again after he was seized with hundreds of other Columbia students who were occupying university buildings during the campus revolt of May 1968. During the police eviction, the judge-to-be caught a cop’s nightstick on his head. Bleeding badly, he was plucked from the back of a paddywagon by a sympathetic doctor.
For his role in the building takeovers, Reichbach was hauled before the university’s disciplinary committee. In an article he wrote for the law school’s newspaper condemning those proceedings, he echoed the battle cry voiced by student leader Mark Rudd, who had borrowed it from poet LeRoi Jones: “Up against the wall, motherfuckers—this is a stick-up.” The article resulted in the newspaper being defunded for two years.
There were other repercussions. When he sought admission to the bar, Reichbach was subjected to nine hearings over 18 months while the court’s Committee on Character and Fitness debated whether he deserved a license to practice.
The counts against him included his campus protests, several arrests, and co-authorship of a guide called The Bust Book. This offense was considered especially grave, since one of Reichbach’s co-authors was Kathy Boudin, who was then on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, having fled a fatal explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse where would-be revolutionaries were assembling homemade bombs.
The older members of the committee, however, appeared to be most troubled by the aspiring lawyer’s use of profanity. “It was a scene out of Lenny Bruce,” Reichbach recalled last week. “They couldn’t bring themselves to say ‘motherfucker.’ Instead, they kept talking about ‘an obscenity I will not now repeat.’ ”
His main antagonist was an aging senior partner at a leading law firm and chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, who repeatedly cited this transgression. Representing Reichbach at the hearings was Paul O’Dwyer, the late Irish-American politician and lawyer who reveled in defending lost causes. During one session, the opera fan again raised the candidate’s printed curses. “He said, ‘Well, Mr. O’Dwyer, I thought I had heard it all. But in my entire life, including serving in the U.S. Army, this is the worst language I have ever heard.'”
Reichbach recalled O’Dwyer’s response. “Paul said, ‘Well, sir, perhaps that was the result of your having served in a segregated unit in the armed forces.’ ”
When the hearings were over, Reichbach, assuming it would be his first and last chance to do so, insisted on giving his own summation. “It was certainly the most hostile jury I could ever face,” he said. “In the invulnerability of youth, I spoke for one and a half hours in a most unapologetic fashion.”
Somehow, he carried the day. Now, Justice Reichbach sits in judgment of others as attorneys seek to persuade him with eloquence of their own. And as a small reminder that justice doesn’t always wear an official face, he keeps a few rebels of old hanging around his courtroom.