Picks and Pans Review: The Pizza Connection

updated 09/05/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/05/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Shana Alexander

This book is a journalistic X ray showing how the criminal justice system works and how it doesn't. Alexander is the ex-magazine writer whose books include Anyone's Daughter, the Patty Hearst story. She spent 30 months-examining the case against 22 Sicilian-born men accused of being part of an organized crime conspiracy to import heroin worth $1.65 billion. The 17-month legal performance took the government five years to prepare. There were 236 witnesses, a battery of translators and even a group of actors reading transcripts of wiretapped conversations. Alexander handles the avalanche of material that resulted with great skill and intelligence, juxtaposing flashback scenes with the diary she kept during the trial. Readers may find some parts slow going, and, at times, may feel a need to consult the directory of characters Alexander provides. Yet the glimpses she offers of both Mafia life and the behind-the-scenes maneuvers of defense lawyers and prosecutors are fascinating. Consider this observation by defense attorney Mario Malerba: "A young man goes into the U.S. Attorney's Office or the DA's office.... He is not taught justice; he's taught to win, the Vince Lombardi ethic. He's taught: Learn this trick, learn that trick, to maximize chances of winning." In this case, the prosecutors had learned their lessons well: All but one of the defendants were found guilty. Still, Alexander suggests, the trial did little to stop drug trafficking. Chinese gangs moved into the void, and government agents find their world tougher to crack since, among other things, the Oriental mobsters' language and codes are more difficult for Westerners to unravel. Another problem is that such megatrials as that of the Pizza Connection—the name derived from the pizza parlors some defendants owned—may damage the criminal justice system because the sheer size and expense of such a long process tend to frustrate judges. They're reluctant, for instance, to declare mistrials in long, complex cases. Because of such reservations, about three months after the Pizza sentences, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York broke up a huge anti-Mafia case into smaller trials, writing in his opinion, "The courts must be scrupulous to avoid the specter of guilt by association—or more likely guilt by confusion." (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $19.95)

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