On Friday U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein threw out the racketeering convictions of two former New York City detectives, Louis J. Eppolito and Steven Caracappa, even though he conceded that they had been "found guilty on overwhelming evidence of the most despicable crimes of violence," including at least eight murders for the mob. Although many tough-on-crime types no doubt will blame the judge, the fault lies squarely with the U.S. Justice Department, which insisted on pursuing federal charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act instead of letting local prosecutors try Eppolito and Caracappa for murder.
To be fair, at least this was a RICO case that actually involved organized crime, unlike some of the fanciful uses to which the Justice Department has put the law. But because Eppolito and Caracappa's New York crimes occurred two decades ago, the five-year statute of limitations for a RICO conspiracy prosecution had expired. (By contrast, there is no statute of limitations for state murder charges.) The prosecutors tried to get around this problem by tacking on a drug charge for a 2005 methamphetamine sale in Las Vegas, which they described as the latest in a series of acts that were part of the same conspiracy. Weinstein didn't buy it. "The government's case against these defendants," he wrote, "stretches federal racketeering and conspiracy law to the breaking point."
Presumably Eppolito and Caracappa can still be tried for murder in state court. But if the Justice Department (abetted by Congress) were not so intent on making a federal case out of everything, we would never have witnessed the galling spectacle of murderous thugs walking free because prosecutors refused to put justice above power and publicity.