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The New Orleans "Mafia" Trial: 1891 - Absent Conspiracy, Missing Witnesses

hennessy adams polizzi scaffidi

Lionel Adams was a brilliant former New Orleans district attorney. Ironically, he had once successfully defended David Hennessy on the charge of killing the chief of detectives when Hennessy was a young cop. Ten years later, Adams was hired by the men accused of murdering Hennessy.

Adams tangled the state's case with challenges throughout the winter of 1890. He successfully had all 19 murder indictments thrown out by charging that an unauthorized stenographer was allowed into the grand-jury room during the questioning of witnesses. New indictments were quickly drawn, but Adams immediately submitted a motion to quash them, too. He argued that the grand jury was biased because it contained two members of a "Committee of Fifty" appointed by the mayor to investigate the Hennessy killing. Adams unsuccessfully subpoenaed the mayor and the entire Committee of Fifty, as well as their confidential minutes and affidavits. Officials interviewed 780 "talesmen," or potential jurors before an acceptable jury was found. Prosecutors were expected to present a clear case when testimony began February 28. Things went less smoothly in the courtroom. None of the State's witnesses could agree on whether the streetlight at the scene was burning brightly or nearly extinct when the shooting began in the misty darkness.

Laborer Zachary Foster swore that Scaffidi, Polizzi, Monasterio, and Antonio Marchesi were "like the ones" he saw shooting at Hennessy. The chief's neighbors agreed that the gun battle was brief, but a young bartender named John Daure claimed to have run four blocks in time to see Scaffidi, Bagnetto, and Antonio Marchesi firing. House painter M.L. Peeler said he saw the shooting from an upstairs gallery. Peeler identified Scaffidi, but testimony suggested painter was drunk at the time. A police officer claimed to have recognized Emmanuelle Polizzi by the back of his head from over a block away.

The courtroom tension was too much for the man newspapers called "Manuel Politz." Polizzi became hysterical, causing attorney Charles Theard to quit the case. Judge Baker replaced Theard with John Q. Flynn, who applied himself to the case more diligently than his predecessor. Four days later, however, Polizzi tried to dive through the sheriff's office window. The press theorized that Polizzi had confessed and was deathly afraid of the other defendants.

District Attorney Charles Luzenberg claimed he would prove a conspiracy in which Chief Hennessy was killed for meddling in the Matranga-Provenzano feud. Joseph Macheca was accused of renting the shack where Monasterio lived, thus arranging an ambush to be carried out by hired assassins. Witnesses of varying degrees of reliability identified Scaffidi, Monasterio, Polizzi, Bagnetto, and the elder Marches as the shooters. Yet spectators waiting for details of the alleged plot were disappointed.

In the months after Hennessy's murder, newspapers remained well stocked with stories about cruel Sicilian brigands, the Committee of Fifty's mandate to "root out foreign murder societies," and unsolved killings in the immigrant community. Violence once vaguely blamed on "stiletto societies" and "the practice of the vendetta" was now attributed to "the Mafia," a single shadowy organization devoted to murder and extortion. Much of the information the press used to accuse the Matrangas of leading a New Orleans Mafia came from their enemies, the Provenzanos, who had unsuccessfully attributed a series of extortion letters to Charles Matranga during their own trial.

Expectations of a plot being proven were high in such a climate. Yet no actual evidence of the Mafia conspiracy sketched by the daily press—or any conspiracy at all, for that matter—was offered by the prosecution during the trial.

The defense insinuated that prosecution witnesses were more interested in city-appropriated reward money than in telling the truth. Lionel Adams produced alibis—called "the felon's defense" by cynics—for all of the accused. The defense also pointed out the absence of two expected witnesses. Hennessy had been walking home with a former cop named Billy O'Connor, from whom he parted just before the shooting. Private security guard J.C. Roe was on duty at Hennessy's house that night and had been superficially wounded by the gunfire. Neither O'Connor nor Roe was called by the state. The defense claimed that their testimony would have destroyed the credibility of prosecution witnesses like John Daure.

When final arguments ended after two weeks of testimony, Judge Baker ordered the jury to find Charles Matranga and Bastian Incardona innocent. The state had introduced no evidence against them.

The New Orleans "Mafia" Trial: 1891 - The First, The Best, And Even The Most Law-abiding [next] [back] The New Orleans "Mafia" Trial: 1891 - Who Killed The Chief?

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