Peter Limone's mother, sister and two brothers died during the decades he spent in prison. Joseph Salvati's son, 5 years old when his father was arrested, grew up hearing children taunt, "Your father is a murderer."
The men and two others who died in prison served a collective 109 years for a 1965 mob murder the FBI knew they did not commit.
A federal judge tried to set things straight Thursday, awarding them and their families a record $101.75-million. She found the government liable for two agents who withheld evidence in the name of protecting informants.
In a stinging rebuke of the FBI, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner found that agents withheld evidence they knew could prove the four men were not involved in the murder of Edward "Teddy" Deegan, a small-time thug who was shot in 1965.
She bluntly rejected the government's argument that the FBI had no duty to share information with state officials who prosecuted the men.
"The government's position is, in a word, absurd," Gertner said.
Gertner said Boston FBI agents knew mob hitman Joseph "The Animal" Barboza lied when he named Salvati, Limone, Henry Tameleo and Louis Greco as Deegan's killers.
Gertner said FBI agents Dennis Condon and H. Paul Rico not only withheld evidence of Barboza's lie, but told state prosecutors who were handling the Deegan murder investigation that they had checked out Barboza's story and it was true.
"The FBI's misconduct was clearly the sole cause of this conviction," the judge said.
A Boston FBI spokeswoman referred calls to the Department of Justice. Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said officials would have no immediate comment.
Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal advocacy group that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions, said the $101.75-million award is the largest ever in a wrongful conviction case.
At the time of Deegan's slaying, Tameleo and Limone were reputed leaders of the New England mob, while Greco and Salvati had minor criminal records.
Deegan's murder had gone unsolved until the FBI recruited Barboza to testify against several organized crime figures. Barboza wanted to protect a fellow FBI informant, Vincent "Jimmy" Flemmi, who was involved in the Deegan slaying, and agreed to testify for state prosecutors in the case, plaintiff's lawyers said.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who chaired the House Government Reform Committee when it conducted an investigation of the FBI and its use of criminal informants, including in the Deegan case, said he was gratified by the judge's ruling.
"This was one of the biggest injustices that I have ever seen," Burton said.
Salvati, 75, was released in 1997, after a little more than 29 years.
"Do I want the money? Yes, I want my children, my grandchildren to have things I didn't have, but nothing can compensate for what they've done," Salvati said.
Limone, 73, served 33 years in prison before being freed in 2001.
"It's been a long time coming," Limone said. "What I've been through - I hope it never happens to anyone else."
$13-million to his estate
Tameleo died in prison in 1985 after serving 18 years.
$28-million to his estate
Greco died in prison in 1995 after serving 28 years.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner also awarded the wives of Limone and Salvati and the estate of Tameleo's deceased wife each slightly more than $1-million. The men's 10 children were each awarded $250,000.