When they began their careers in the gloaming of the 1960s, few would have predicted that conservative-leaning TV broadcaster Dan Rea and decidedly liberal US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner would make history together.
But that’s what happened three weeks ago, when Joseph Salvati, Peter Limone, and the estates of Henry Tameleo and Louis Greco were awarded $102 million after Salvati and Limone spent nearly 30 years in jail and Tameleo and Greco died behind bars, all framed by the FBI for a 1965 gangland murder.
The award is the largest ever in a wrongful-conviction case. And it comes largely thanks to the work of two figures with very different political leanings but a similar thirst for justice.
Gertner, who wrote the 228-page decision awarding the payout, is a long-time liberal lioness. She attended Yale Law with the Clintons. (Bill nominated her to her seat in 1993.) Her first big case as a criminal defense lawyer was defending student radical Susan Saxe against manslaughter and armed-robbery charges in 1975. In the years since, she’s helped safeguard abortion rights in Massachusetts and has worked tirelessly on cases dealing with prisoners’ rights, minorities, and the poor.
About the time Gertner was defending Saxe, Rea was national vice-chairman of the anti-radical, William F. Buckley–founded Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) at BU Law. Now a general-assignment reporter for WBZ-TV, Rea’s been hammering the Salvati case via some five dozen television reports since 1993. “I don’t want to be portrayed as a crazy right-wing guy, because I’m definitely not,” he says. “But you wouldn’t describe Dan Rea as a bleeding-heart, knee-jerk liberal.”
Gertner and Rea, both at the tops of their professions for more than three decades, have lately found themselves forming something of a mutual-admiration society.
Gertner (who did not respond to a request for comment) cited Rea’s reporting in her decision. Noting that “proof of innocence in this democracy should not depend upon efforts as gargantuan as these,” she lauded him for “relentlessly” pursuing “the cause of Salvati’s innocence.”
Rea, meanwhile, returns the compliment. “Nancy Gertner is a great judge. The only word I can [use to] describe [her] would be ‘magnificent.’ She came out, made her findings of fact in a very complicated case — this was not an easy case to understand — and just nailed the government, nailed the Justice Department.”
No surprise, says attorney (and Phoenix contributor) Harvey Silverglate, who was Gertner’s law partner for 16 years. As one of the rare judges on the federal bench with a criminal-defense and civil-liberties background, Silverglate says, “she’s cross-examined enough FBI agents that she can tell when an FBI agent is lying, quite instinctively. The FBI was not lucky having her on the case, because her experience makes her a very sophisticated consumer of FBI testimony.”
And it shouldn’t be too surprising that someone like Gertner and someone like Rea can find common cause. Especially these days. Liberals, after all, no longer have a monopoly on skepticism of governmental power.
“Friends of mine didn’t understand why I was involved in this guy’s case,” says Rea, who spent 15 years, often on his own time, investigating Salvati’s imprisonment. “I had no sense of proprietary interest in it. I wanted to see justice done.”