Third District Court of Appeal
Third District Court of Appeal ()

Corrupt former FBI agent John Connolly, who was convicted of helping famed Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger commit murder, could soon be released from prison after the Third District Court of Appeal overturned his murder conviction.

The court reversed Connolly’s 40-year sentence, ruling 2-1 that he was improperly convicted for his role in the 1982 slaying of World Jai Alai president John Callahan in Miami.

A hit man testified in the 2008 trial that he fatally shot Callahan in South Florida after Connolly tipped Bulger and his right-hand man, Stephen Flemmi, that Callahan would implicate them in another murder. Bulger, one of the most feared mobsters in Boston history, is now serving two life terms.

Connolly, who was charged with murder based on the testimony of two serial killers, denied tipping off Bulger or having any role in the crime.

Because the statute of limitations had expired on a murder conspiracy charge, prosecutors added a firearms charge since Connolly was thought to carry his FBI firearm at all times.

“Connolly’s conviction for second-degree murder with a firearm should not have been reclassified to a life felony in order to circumvent the statute of limitations,” Judge Richard J. Suarez wrote for the majority. Chief Judge Frank A. Shepherd concurred. “Without the fundamentally erroneous reclassification, the first-degree felony of second-degree murder was time-barred.”

Judge Leslie B. Rothenberg dissented, stating, “Evidence as to both his participation in the murder and his possession of a firearm during his participation is overwhelming.”

Connolly, 73, who spent 12 years in prison, was Bulger’s longtime FBI handler when the mob figure was an informant. Connolly was imprisoned on federal racketeering charges for protecting Bulger while his mob career went on.

‘He’s Cautious’

The appeals court stayed its decision to allow an appeal. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in an interview with the Daily Business Review she would ask for an en banc rehearing by the full appeals court.

The case was a victory for Manny Alvarez of the Miami-Dade public defender’s office, who handled Connolly’s appeal.

The Third District affirmed the conviction in 2011 and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stanford Blake’s sentence. The case was before the court on Alvarez’s motion for rehearing three years ago.

The University of Miami School of Law’s Innocence Clinic also got involved, filing a 15-page motion for post-conviction relief in 2013. The trial court never ruled on that motion.

In March, Alvarez filed a writ of mandamus with the Florida Supreme Court asking the court to determine why the Third District Court had not ruled on the pending motion for rehearing. The appellate court asked for a five-week extension and then filed its 72-page ruling May 28.

“I always thought this was the correct legal result, but I’m surprised that it took so long to get there,” Alvarez said. “Mr. Connolly is happy, but he’s cautious. This is the first major win in his saga. Until he’s released, he’s going to cross his fingers.”

Prosecutors plan to pursue an appeal.

“We accept the court’s decision, but we are going back and asking them to reconsider,” Rundle said. “We were surprised and disappointed because the same panel had affirmed the ruling three years ago.”

Connolly had another powerful ally helping him behind the scenes. James McDonald, a lawyer with McLuskey & McDonald in Miami, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor and Pinecrest village council member, heard about Connolly’s case from a friend, former Oklahoma Gov. and FBI agent Frank Keating. McDonald reviewed the file and agreed to assist on the case pro bono. He contacted the UM Innocence Clinic and appealed to reporters to write about the case.

“I have been working on this case since 2006,” McDonald said. “After I looked at the file, I wanted to help. John is going to be free. The law is on our side.”

About seven UM law students worked on the case for 18 months, said associate director Craig Trocino.

“It’s a huge victory for Mr. Connolly and everyone who worked on the case,” he said.