Inside Mob Boss Joey Merlino's Murder Acquittal

A lot was happening in Philadelphia in the '90s, from heat waves, raves, and drum circles to record-setting snow storms, SEPTA strikes, and the introduction of Will Smith as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. While city streets glistened with neon styles and hip hop went from underground to mainstream, something much more sinister was also taking place behind the scenes: organized crime.

The mafia, to put it bluntly, was alive and well in Philadelphia at that time, at least according to FBI files. Notorious mob members such as Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo and Giovanni "John" Stanfa were not only running the streets in certain circles but were also engaged in full-on "Philly mob wars," according to Philly Voice. One such member of the notorious criminal underworld was none other than Joseph Merlino, more frequently referred to by his alias "Skinny Joe." ABC News reports that the real skinny on Joe was a pending murder trial that could have ended in a life behind bars had the mob boss been convicted. Instead, it ended in an acquittal, a verdict that, according to Shouse California Law Group, means the prosecution failed to prove the defendant's guilt beyond any reasonable doubt in the eyes of the jury. While an acquittal is slightly different from a not guilty verdict, the end result is pretty much the same in terms of sentencing. In this case, it was the difference between eventual freedom and a lifetime of imprisonment.

The complicated life of Joey Merlino, mob underboss and local celebrity

According to Philly Voice, the man known as "Skinny Joey" was once hailed "Philadelphia's only celebrity gangster." While he might spend more time in the limelight than other convicted criminals, he actually comes from a long line of notorious mobsters, including his father, Salvatore "Chuckie" Merlino, a reputed underboss who died in prison in 2012 (per The Philadelphia Inquirer).

Notedly, Joey Merlino rose to underworld fame in the early '90s, just two short years after his father's racketeering conviction. He has since followed the path of the Philadelphia crime family just about every step of the way, but with one exception. PennLive reports that unlike underbosses of the past who remained tight-lipped and illusive, Skinny Joey embraced the inevitable spotlight cast upon him and his activities. He was frequently spotted club hopping along the Delaware Avenue strip, his flashy attire and charismatic smile only overshadowed by his charitable contributions and the famous feasts he put together annually for the homeless community.

He managed to skate by on his popularity and family legacy for almost an entire decade too, but in 1999, he was arrested on drug charges and temporarily detained (via Casetext). A slew of criminal charges and convictions would soon follow. His future looked bleak in 2001, yet somehow he managed to avoid any convictions related to murder (per ABC News).

Three murder charges filed after a 10-year investigation into Merlino's illicit activities

According to ABC News, the 2001 trial of Joey Merlino involved numerous charges ranging from bookmaking and extortion to cold-blooded murder and just about every other illicit activity imaginable. The charges were hinged on a 10-year investigation that was complete with wiretaps, turncoats, witnesses, and a jaw-dropping 943 bits of evidence. Had the trial gone as the FBI hoped, Merlino, along with at least six of his associates, would never have seen the light of day again.

Similar probes had resulted in consecutive life sentences for the likes of Little Nicky Scarfo and reputed mob boss John Stanfa. In fact, the FBI's notorious wiretaps opened up a world of criminal enterprise, vast as the ocean and equally mysterious. The American mafia was complete with its own code of conduct, its own businesses and politicians, and its own complex code language, meaning that even tapped phone calls would need to be deciphered, and long-term undercover investigations were necessary (via FBI). To that end, when Merlino was ushered into the courtroom in 2001, he stood there with 10 years of evidence stacked against him and still managed to beat the murder charges.

Turncoats take the stand, accusing the mobster of more than just racketeering

ABC News reports that much like in previous organized crime cases, the prosecution presented a very elaborate and detailed list of accusations and evidence. Their side of the trial dragged on for months and included 50 witnesses, some of whom were turncoats. Among them was former mob boss Ralph Natale, who spent two full weeks elaborating on how he and Merlino conspired to kill rival gang members in order to win the purported Philadelphia-South Jersey mob wars that rocked the late '80s, earning Little Nicky Scarfo and associates the title of "the mafia's most violent family" (via Philadelphia Weekly). Another noteworthy turncoat witness was Ronald Previte, whose ability to infiltrate the Philly mob family whilst wearing a wire and recording hundreds of sinister conversations earned him half a million dollars.

In the face of fierce prosecutors, the defense chose to hone in on only the most serious charges on the table. Their goal was to prove that Joey Merlino may have been guilty of things like racketeering and bookmaking, but he was still innocent of murder.

The 2001 murder trial ends in acquittal

Befuddling the FBI, despite having presented the court with three months' worth of testimonies and nearly 1,000 pieces of evidence, Joey Merlino was still acquitted on all three counts of murder. ABC News reports that Merlino, as well as three alleged mafia associates, evaded life imprisonment and were acquitted of three murder counts, not to mention two additional counts of attempted murder. Experts claim the defense took a risky approach by attempting to instill reasonable doubt. Examples of this include placing counter-witnesses on the stand to challenge the stories of key witnesses and turncoat Ralph Natale.

In the end, the risky strategy paid off, and Merlino was found guilty of other lesser crimes, including bookmaking and extortion. Things got very heated on the witness stand, with the prosecution grilling some of the defendants' witnesses but to no avail. By the time the trial was complete, the conflicting stories were too difficult to decipher. While the prosecution claimed that Jersey mobster Joseph Sodano (aka "Capo") was murdered when he refused to meet with Philly-based mafia leaders, witnesses for the defense shot back with an entirely different story — one where Sodano died as the result of an armed robbery.

With many conflicting and scattered stories being told on the stand, the drawn-out murder trial ended in an acquittal. According to ABC 6, Merlino was sentenced to 14 years for crimes related to racketeering and released in 2011 after serving 12 of those years behind bars.

It's a long road to Philadelphia freedom for this former underboss

TMZ reporters caught up with the flashy former mobster in 2012, approximately one year after his release from federal jail. While he was leaving the parking lot of a Los Angeles airport, he was pulling out passenger side to the tune of "Philadelphia Freedom," which appears to be the one thing he simply cannot obtain. Since then, the controversial mob boss has been roped into scandal after scandal (per Philly Voice) while simultaneously being banned from virtually every casino in the state of Pennsylvania (via CBS News).

The Guardian reports that in 2018, then-56-year-old Joey Merlino was sentenced to yet another stint behind bars, this time for operating an illegal gambling business, an endeavor that landed him two more years of imprisonment. While being acquitted of murder might have appeared to work in Merlino's favor at the time, experts claim his imprisonment could do a great deal of damage to what's left of the organized underworld in the City of Brotherly Love.