Skip to main content

One of the most famous lawyers in the United States, Alan Dershowitz, is to appear in court today to testify on behalf of the man alleged to be the godfather of the Montreal Mafia.

Mr. Dershowitz, who only gets involved in a handful of criminal cases each year, will appear this morning as an expert witness at a Montreal bail hearing for Vito Rizzuto, who was detained following an extradition request by U.S. authorities.

A Harvard Law School professor, Mr. Dershowitz has previously worked for such high-profile clients as O. J. Simpson, junk bond trader Michael Milken and hotelier Leona Helmsley.

He is also a close friend of Canada's Attorney-General, Irwin Cotler, who will eventually authorize Mr. Rizzuto's removal to the United States should his lawyers exhaust their avenues of appeal against the extradition bid.

Mr. Dershowitz and Mr. Cotler met at Yale Law School in the early 1960s and are so close that the first person Mr. Cotler called after being appointed to cabinet last December was his friend at Harvard.

Mr. Cotler's director of communications, Denise Rudnicki, said the minister's office will not comment on Mr. Dershowitz's testimony but is confident there will not be a perception of conflict of interest.

"The minister's background and reputation have served him quite well in the past to prove to everyone that he is capable of separating personal friendship from his duties as Attorney-General of Canada," Ms. Rudnicki said.

Mr. Rizzuto, 58, is wanted in New York state in connection with the 1981 Brooklyn slaying of three renegade Mafia captains. U.S. authorities allege in court documents that Mr. Rizzuto was a foot soldier for the Bonanno crime family.

Because the indictment was made under U.S. federal, rather than state, law, Mr. Rizzuto is charged with racketeering acts that could carry a 20-year jail term.

Lawyers for the Montreal resident say, however, that the statute of limitations for such charges expired 18 years ago -- five years after the killings.

Mr. Dershowitz is the latest heavyweight to join Mr. Rizzuto's high-powered legal team, which includes prominent Montreal criminal lawyers Louis Belleau and Pierre Morneau. Constitutional-law expert Julius Grey was also involved at one point.

In addition, the team also comprises Mr. Rizzuto's regular lawyer, Loris Cavaliere, whose firm employs two of Mr. Rizzuto's children, who are also lawyers.

Last February, Mr. Cavaliere was on an Internet chat board used by people interested in mobsters. He was trying to get in touch with a respondent who had said in a posting that Mr. Rizzuto wasn't listed anywhere among members of the Bonanno clan whose names came up during U.S. congressional hearings.

The posting referred to the "25 Years After Valachi" hearings before a Senate subcommittee in 1988, which looked at U.S.-based Mafia families. (Joseph Valachi was a Mafia turncoat who testified before the Senate in 1963.)

Canadian authorities describe Mr. Rizzuto in court documents as "the godfather of the Italian Mafia in Montreal" but have not prosecuted him successfully since 1972.

In the killings for which he is wanted in the United States, the three victims -- Alphonse (Sonny Red) Indelicato, Philip (Phil Lucky) Giaccone and Dominick (Big Trin) Trinchera -- were lured to a meeting and gunned down because they were plotting against Philip Rastelli, the head of the family, who was in prison.

According to extradition papers, one of the gunmen turned informant and will testify that Mr. Rizzuto was the lead shooter and had been brought in from Canada to make it harder to trace the killers.