In My Opinion

Different verdicts in two self-defense cases make quite the contrast

Two killings. Two claims of self-defense. Two very different outcomes. In retrospect, neither verdict did much to bolster confidence in the Florida judicial system.

George Zimmerman, of course, walked. Though even his supporters must be bothered that since his trial in July, the supposedly meek fellow acquitted in the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin has twice been busted in ugly domestic assault cases involving two different women. Both his estranged wife and a girlfriend told police that Zimmerman had brandished firearms. (After he busted up the girlfriend’s house in Sanford last week, police hauled away a 12-gauge shotgun, an AR-15 assault rifle and three handguns. Apparently, it takes quite an arsenal for George to keep his women in line.)

But these new reports about George’s volatile temper are only good for hindsight. We can’t convict someone in retrospect.

We can, however, employ retrospective reasoning and shave time off Ralph Liotta’s 12-year prison sentence. Florida, so infamous for hinky self-defense acquittals, for setting the likes of Zimmerman free, managed to convict this Boca deli owner of shooting a mobster who would scare the hell out of anyone.

New insight into the character of Liotta’s “victim” emerged last month in the Broward Circuit Court murder trial of a couple mobsters implicated in the 2001 slaying of Gus Boulis, the SunCruz gambling magnate and founder of the Miami Subs restaurant chain.

Witnesses testified that the hitman who was hired to kill Boulis was Gotti crime gang associate John Gurino. That was the same John Gurino who showed up two years later at the Corner Deli in a West Boca to forcibly extract tardy payments, the $350-a-week “vig” the shark was charging for a loan to Liotto. Gurino came with a gun stuck in his waste band, just to make his intentions clear. He suggested, along other niceties, that he would rape Liotta in front of his wife and kids. A waiter in the Deli heard Gurino talk about cutting the deadbeat’s throat. Then Gurino slapped Liotta.

Liotta shot Gurino in the doorway of the Deli. Palm Beach County prosecutors told jurors at Liotta’s 2005 manslaughter trial that the shooting wasn’t self-defense. They said Liotta shot the mobster not out of fear but because he felt disrespected after being slapped in the face. They also noted that Liotta had been in no hurry to call 911 for an ambulance to help the dying Gurino.

Prosecutors also dismissed allegations that Gurino had killed Gus Boulis as no more than rumors: “Hearsay, over and over.”

Those rumors sounded a lot more authentic at the Broward murder trial of "Little Tony" Ferrari and “Big Tony” Moscatiello last month, when several prosecution witness said the mobsters had hired Gurino to kill Boulis. (Ferrari was convicted. Moscatiello’s case was declared a mistrial after his attorney grew ill.) Liotto himself was among the witnesses who testified about Gurino’s charming ways.

Broward prosecutor Brian Cavanagh returned the favor Tuesday in West Palm Beach, when he testified at Liotta’s sentence reduction hearing, telling the judge that law enforcement officials had tied Gurino to the Boulis killing. The Sun-Sentinel reported that Cavanagh said Gurino was “trying to shake down Liotta” when the 2003 shooting occurred. It was pretty clear how the veteran Broward prosecutor felt about Liotta’s long prison sentence.

But the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office refused to take a stance, one way or the other, on whether the 56-year-old Liotta should get out of jail early, despite his cooperation with the Broward State Attorney’s Office, despite testimony confirming Gurino was the gunman in the Boulis murder.

Judge Sandra McSorley angrily shut down the hearing. According to the Sun-Sentinel, she complained, “For the State Attorney’s Office, the chief law enforcement officer of this county, [to] come in here and ask the court to make a determination when the assistant state attorney refuses to take a position is really a reflection of a lack — frankly I’m going to withdraw what I was about to say.”

Even without considering the Boulis hit, there was already plenty of reason to give the Deli owner the benefit of the doubt, when he claimed he was terrified of Gurino, “Because, you know, the guy’s a nut job.”

Gurino had been the front man in an infamous plumbing company in New York owned by John Gotti Sr., and he was the nominal “president” of the Ragtime Newsstand Dairy, the infamous Queens hangout of the Gotti crew.

In 1984, Gurino had been indicted for the mob hit of one of his former business partners in but was acquitted after the key prosecution witness, victim’s girlfriend inexplicably changed her testimony at the trial. Gurino later bragged that he had also fixed the outcome.

In 1992, when John Gotti Sr. was convicted for racketeering, Gurino led the a mob of protestors outside U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, overturning cars, smashing windshields and chanting “Let’s Free John Gotti.” The crowd tore apart police barricades and threw the pieces at the police officers. Gurino was charged with felony riot, but later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

In retrospect, of course, Gurino makes quite a contrast to the unarmed 17-year-old shot in a confrontation with George Zimmerman. But Zimmerman’s a free man (at least until his latest domestic assault case goes to trial.) Ralph Liotta killed a mafia hit man, an armed loan shark, a known killer who had come to rough him up. But on Tuesday, it was Liotta who was trucked back to prison.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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