A federal appeals court upheld yesterday a landmark verdict for four men framed by the FBI in a gangland slaying, although the appellate judges said the $101.7 million damage judgment awarded by a lower court was “at the outer edge of the universe of permissible awards.’’
The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit said the 2007 damage judgment to the families of Peter J. Limone, Joseph Salvati, Louis Greco, and Henry Tameleo, believed to be the largest of its kind nationally, was considerably higher than any of the three appellate judges would have ordered.
Peter Limone was one of four men wrongly convicted.
“But when we take into account the severe emotional trauma inflicted upon the scapegoats,’’ the appeals court wrote of the wrongly imprisoned men, “we cannot say with any firm conviction that those awards are grossly disproportionate to the injuries sustained.’’
Limone, now 75, of Medford, spent more than 33 years in prison as a result of his wrongful conviction in the 1965 murder. Salvati, now 76, of the North End, was in prison for more than 29 years. The other two men, Greco and Tameleo, died in prison after decades of imprisonment.
Juliane Balliro, a Boston lawyer for the Limones and Tameleos, said she had expected the appeals court to uphold the ruling by US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner.
“We hope the government will pay this award and allow these folks to move on with their lives and enjoy what little time they have left with their families,’’ she said.
She said the Justice Department can seek to appeal to the full Court of Appeals for the First Circuit or to the Supreme Court, but predicted those challenges would fail. “It really is time for the government to put the sordid past of the FBI behind them and just move on,’’ she said.
Beverley Lumpkin, a Justice Department spokeswoman in Washington, said the government is reviewing the ruling, but she declined to comment further.
In a dramatic ruling on July 26, 2007, Gertner found the FBI “responsible for the framing of four innocent men’’ in the murder of a small-time criminal, Edward “Teddy’’ Deegan, in a Chelsea alley.
She concluded after a 22-day bench trial that the FBI deliberately withheld evidence of the four men’s innocence and helped hide the injustice for decades.
The discovery of secret FBI files that were not handed over during the men’s 1968 state murder trial prompted a state judge in 2001 to overturn the murder convictions of Limone and Salvati. Limone was immediately freed from prison. Salvati had been paroled in 1997. The convictions of Tameleo and Greco were later set aside posthumously.
Documents in the Deegan slaying showed that the FBI knew that the key witness in the case, notorious hitman-turned-government witness Joseph “The Animal’’ Barboza, may have falsely implicated the four men while protecting one of Deegan’s real killers, Vincent “Jimmy’’ Flemmi, an FBI informant.
Gertner found that the FBI protected Barboza and Flemmi because both provided valuable information against the Mafia, which was the bureau’s top priority at the time.
During oral arguments before the appeals judges in May, lawyers for the Justice Department contended the FBI could not be held liable for malicious prosecution because the four men were prosecuted in state court by state authorities. The appellate court agreed yesterday, saying FBI agents helped the state make its case but did not initiate it.
Nevertheless, the appeals court said Gertner was right to hold the government liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress by covering up evidence that the four men were innocent.
Writing for the court, Judge Bruce M. Selya wrote that the FBI “stooped too low’’ to try to stamp out organized crime and that “the large damage awards mark the last word of a sad chapter in the annals of federal law enforcement.’’