John Connolly, the notorious former Boston FBI agent accused of helping gangsters engineer the slaying of a gambling executive in Miami, is back to being a convicted murderer.
Last year, a divided panel of three Miami appeals court judges tossed his conviction for the 1982 murder of John Callahan — citing legal technicalities about the validity of the murder charge.
On Wednesday, the Third District Court of Appeal — in a rare 6-4 decision featuring every single judge on the court — issued a surprising reversal of its previous decision, ruling that Miami jurors got it right when they convicted Connolly back in 2008.
For now, the 74-year-old Connolly remains in a Florida prison serving out a 40-year sentence. His case will now be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, said his Miami attorney, James McDonald.
“Justice will ultimately prevail here,” McDonald said on Wednesday.
Miami-Dade Katherine Fernández Rundle hailed the decision.
“We have always believed in the validity of our prosecution against John Connolly. While appealing a technical legal issue, Connolly has never attacked the evidence itself which led to his conviction,” she said in a statement. “Today, that technical issue has been set aside.”
Connolly was a star FBI agent in the 1970s, and one of his informants was James “Whitey” Bulger, the leader of a violent group known as the Winter Hill Gang. Their twisted relationship became the loose basis for the 2006 movie The Departed.
Bulger spent 17 years as a fugitive before he was captured outside Los Angeles in 2011. He is now doing life in prison.
A federal jury in Massachusetts convicted Connolly in 2002 for his dealings with Bulger’s gang — mainly protecting them from prosecution and tipping them about informants in their ranks. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in that case, a sentence already completed.
In the Miami case, prosecutors alleged that Connolly told gang leaders Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi that Callahan, an executive with a jai-alai operation in Miami, might cooperate in the probe of an earlier mob murder.
The mobsters dispatched notorious hitman John Martorano to shoot Callahan dead, leaving his corpse in a Cadillac trunk at Miami's airport. During a riveting trial in Miami in 2008, Flemmi and a host of underworld figures testified against Connolly. That included Martorano — who has long since been released from prison.
Miami jurors convicted Connolly of second-degree murder with a firearm. Without the added gun element, the crime in the early 1980s carried only a four-year statute of limitations.
But prosecutors had asked the court to “reclassify” the crime to second-degree murder with a firearm — making it a felony punishable by up to life in prison, with no statute of limitations.
The state told jurors that Connolly could be convicted of murder with a firearm because he wore his service weapon when suggesting to Boston gangsters that Callahan be killed. The murder happened weeks later, and over 1,000 miles away.
The appeal that followed was highly technical and unusual in the legal world.
In March 2011, a panel of three appeals judges upheld the conviction with no opinion. Nearly three years later, the same panel — in a 2-1 decision — reversed itself, saying Connolly’s firearm played no role in the crime.
But in November, in a legal rarity, the court decided that all 10 judges should be allowed to weigh in on Connolly’s conviction. They heard oral arguments in February.
Finally on Wednesday, the majority ruled that the state properly “reclassified” the crime to take into account the agent’s firearm, and found that jurors knew exactly what they were doing when they convicted Connolly on the charge.
“The defendant was properly convicted of second-degree murder with a firearm,” Judge Leslie Rothenberg wrote in the majority opinion.
In the dissent, Judge Richard Suarez wrote that jurors took into account the hitman’s gun, not Connolly’s, when convicting the ex-agent.
“It is beyond question that Connolly’s service weapon was neither available for use nor was it used in the murder; it had absolutely no spatial or temporal relationship to the discrete crime charged,” Suarez wrote.
The decision was close. Had the vote ended in a 5-5 tie, Connolly would have prevailed and he would have been released from prison.