WASHINGTON – Representatives on the House Government Reform Committee showed a rare display of emotion on Thursday, as they heard the story of a man who spent 30 years in prison for a crime the FBI knew he did not commit.
"Your story of faith, your story of family, your story of courage and perseverance is a gift to your nation. And we cherish it," Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., tearfully told Joe Salvati, a Massachusetts husband and father of four. "Your testimony will insure no one else has to endure the outrageous indignities and injustices you, Mr. Salvati, and your family, Marie, and your family, have suffered."
Salvati was 34 when he was sent to prison in 1967 for a 1965 Boston murder. He had apparently owed money to an informant who told officials Salvati committed the murder, in an attempt to cover up the real killer's identity.
It took 26 years for Salvati's lawyer, Victor Garo, to uncover documents proving FBI agents and Boston police decided to prosecute Salvati to protect the identities of a few informants they believed would be endangered if the real murderer were identified.
Several of those informants later committed other murders. Documents also showed then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover knew of the misconduct and false testimony but let the case go on.
Salvati, who was exonerated earlier this year — four years after his sentence was commuted — broke down Thursday while testifying about his experience, and the undying strength and love he gained from his wife over the years.
He also said that despite his 30-year imprisonment, he still had faith in the American justice system.
"I still consider our justice system to be the greatest justice system in the world. But sometimes it fails, as in my case," he said. "We need agencies like the FBI because there are many out in the world that want to hurt us. However, when the FBI or any other similar agencies break the law, they must be held accountable for their crimes."
Garo was less forgiving.
"It was more important to the FBI that they protected their prized informants than it was for innocent people not to be framed. The truth be damned. It didn't matter the truth," he told the panel.
Through tears, Marie Salvati told of how she raised their four children without her husband at home, but always with him in their heart.
"From the very beginning of imprisonment, I knew that it would be important for the children to have constant contact, with their family, with their father. And every weekend I dress up, pack a little lunch, and go off to see him for their hugs and their kisses and whatever went on. And he would give them their father's guidance, even though he wasn't home with them," Marie Salvati said.
Later in the hearing, retired Boston FBI agent H. Paul Rico defiantly denied he helped frame Salvati, but at the same time admitted the wrong man went to jail for the crime.
"What do you want, tears?" Rico shot back at Shays, who accused the agent of feeling no remorse for his role in case. "It'll be probably a nice movie or something," replied the ex-agent, when pressed on the matter.
Also testifying at the hearing was lawyer F. Lee Bailey, who represented Boston mobster Joseph "The Animal" Barboza, the first Boston mobster to enter the witness protection program. Barboza falsely implicated Salvati, who back in 1967 owed Barboza $400.
Bailey later filed a sworn affidavit that his client had testified falsely. That testimony helped to get Salvati's sentence commuted.
The FBI's Boston office still has admitted no wrongdoing in this case and has issued no apology to the Salvati family. But outgoing FBI director Louis Freeh issued a written statement on Thursday promising the bureau's cooperation in a criminal investigation of the agents who were involved.
Lawmakers are insisting on a complete investigation, as well as an apology and compensation for the Salvatis.