A federal judge sharply criticized prosecutors yesterday for withholding evidence during plea negotiations with a mob captain who could now go free because his case was mishandled.
Vincent Ferrara, 56, avoided a life sentence by pleading guilty to racketeering and other charges in 1992 and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Ferrara, who was educated at Boston College, had been scheduled for release in January 2009, but US District Judge Mark L. Wolf threw out the sentence last month after finding that prosecutors may have strong-armed Ferrara into pleading guilty to a murder he didn't commit.
At a hearing yesterday in US District Court, prosecutors urged Wolf to keep Ferrara locked up while they appeal the ruling, arguing he still poses a risk to the public.
The judge responded by blasting the government's handling of the case, calling Ferrara's plea deal ''a horrible charade with human consequences."
Wolf did not immediately rule on whether Ferrara will remain in federal prison while the matter is appealed.
In his April 12 ruling, Wolf said there was evidence prosecutors did not tell Ferrara's lawyers about a police memo saying a key government witness was recanting his statement that Ferrara ordered the 1985 killing of Vincent Limoli, a turncoat foot soldier for the mob.
The witness, Walter Jordan, contended he was bullied by federal authorities into sticking to his original story that Ferrara ordered the hit. Soon after, Ferrara pleaded guilty to killing Limoli, days before the case was scheduled to go to trial.
Wolf, who has regularly criticized government misconduct in mob prosecutions, called the police memo ''the smokingest gun I've ever seen."
''My confidence . . . is utterly undermined by the government's extraordinary misconduct," he told Assistant US Attorney James D. Herbert.
Prosecutors want to play tapes recorded in prison of conversations between Ferrara and alleged Mafia associates, which they say will prove Ferrara hasn't severed his ties to the mob.
''His release will present an immediate and significant danger to the public," Herbert argued in a court filing. ''By any standard, Ferarra should be sentenced for what he is: a killer."
Ferrara's lawyer argued for his immediate release.
''He knows the stakes," attorney Martin Weinberg said. ''He's well aware of what can happen if he violates supervised release."
He said there's no evidence that Ferrara ordered Limoli's slaying.
''It's simply Alice in Wonderland," he said. ''It's a reversal of reality."
Ferrara, formerly of Revere, has been in custody since 1989 when he was arrested after being caught on tape in two high-profile bugging operations, including an October 1989 Mafia induction ceremony in Medford.