“It was all a lie,” says Salvati, standing outside the Boston club where he was arrested in 1967. (Photos: Jason Grow)
You could hear the ticking of the clock hanging in the back of the courtroom and the cries of the seagulls that circled above Boston as the jurors – averting their eyes for the first time in the 50‒day trial – filed past the six men in the dock. The day before, the six had been convicted in the slaying of a local hood named Edward “Teddy” Deegan. The jury was now being asked to choose between a sentence of life behind bars or death.
His voice flinty, 73‒year‒old Justice Felix Forte addressed the first four defendants in turn. “You are sentenced to die in the electric chair.” Undulating his hands to illustrate the chair’s 2,000‒volt current, he added, “On the designated date, the electricity will run through your body until death.”
Joseph Salvati, a 35‒year‒old father of four young children, was next. Convicted of being an accessory to the murder, he rose uneasily to his feet. Forte asked if he had anything to say. Although Salvati had maintained his innocence from the beginning, he mumbled, “No.”
“You are sentenced to Walpole Prison for the rest of your natural life, without possibility of parole,” the judge said on that day, July 31, 1968. It was a death sentence of a different kind.
And it was especially harsh because Salvati – and three of the other five defendants – were innocent. Worse still, the FBI knew it all along
In the mid‒1960s, New England was teeming with organized crime. J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial FBI director, had launched his campaign to eradicate the Mob, and field agents were under pressure to cultivate Mafia informants. Operatives in the bureau’s Boston office soon infiltrated deeply into the organized‒crime underworld, forming alliances with a network of gangsters including Joseph “The Animal” Barboza, a brutal loan shark and hit man with some 30 murders to his name.
Although there will always be questions surrounding the 1965 alleyway shooting of Deegan – several reports suggest that the FBI was forewarned and did nothing to stop the murder – it’s clear today that Joseph Salvati didn’t have anything to do with it. Barboza admitted to participating in the slaying to his FBI handler, Special Agent H. Paul Rico. But with Rico’s collusion, the hit man concocted a scenario that protected his partner, Jimmy “The Bear” Flemmi, while implicating the defendants, only two of whom were actually involved.
Barboza, for whom the Witness Protection Program was created, was ultimately murdered by the Mafia in 1976. Meanwhile, Salvati spent decades filing appeals from behind bars. He went into prison a vibrant man who loved his wife and kids, pasta and a bottle of wine shared with friends; he came out 29 years and seven months later a silver‒haired great‒grandfather.
Salvati was exonerated in January 2001, a month after a special task force investigating the Boston FBI office’s handling of Mob informants uncovered long‒hidden documents establishing that innocent men had been framed for Deegan’s murder. Last July, in a civil case filed by the families of the four wrongly convicted, federal Judge Nancy Gertner ordered the government to pay them $101.7 million.
“The minute Barboza’s mouth identified the plaintiffs, [the agents] had to have known he was lying,” the judge wrote in her scathing 223‒page decision. “FBI officials up the line allowed their employees to break laws, violate rules and ruin lives.”
“I was robbed of three generations of family, who grew up without me, and a lifetime with my wife,” Salvati says today, sitting in the modest North End apartment that his wife, Marie, moved to 20 years ago, when money was especially tight. “I was behind bars so long, when I came out, my father had died and my mother had Alzheimer’s. She didn’t recognize me.”
He raises a beefy hand and wipes away tears as they course down his face. “Do you know what it’s like to never be there for birthdays, Communions, graduations, weddings? The skinned knees, broken bones, taking your kid to play ball? The government stole more than 30 years of my life.”