Sentenced to death for the 1927 murder of 30-year-old Joseph Fantasia in Boston, Massachusetts, 21-year-old Italian seaman Gangi Cero came within four hours of execution before receiving a stay. Two years later, he was retried and acquitted.
On July 14, 1927, the New York Times referred to this case as “the strangest murder case in the history of Suffolk County and one of the strangest in the history of the United States.”
On the afternoon of June 11, 1927, Joseph Fantasia was shot in the back and killed shortly after he left a barbershop on Prince Street in Boston’s North End. The shooter dropped the gun on the ground and fled. Louis Smith, who claimed to have seen the shooter run from the scene and enter Mondello’s bakeshop, called the police. Inside the pastry shop, police arrested Gangi Cero. In very broken English, Cero denied having anything to do with, or any connection to, the crime. Police learned that Cero worked as an enforcer for Samuel Gallo, a leader of the North End gangs who made a living in stolen clothing. The police were unable to find any connection between Cero and the victim, and theorized that he had been hired as a hit man to kill Fantasia, rumored to be connected to the mob.
On June 15, 1927, Cero was indicted based on the testimony of Louis Smith that Cero fled the scene immediately after the shot was fired and dropped something as he ran. Gallo hired William R. Scharton, one of the best criminal lawyers in Boston, to represent Cero.
On November 15, 1927, Cero was tried for first-degree murder in the Superior Court of Suffolk County before a judge and jury. Cero’s defense was that he had not been at the scene of the murder and that the witness, Louis Smith, made a mistake in identifying him at the bakeshop. Cero took the stand in his own defense and denied firing the shot or that he ran away. Evidence presented by the Commonwealth included Smith’s testimony that “I saw something drop, and I saw him run.” Another witness, Vincenzo Musto, also testified that he saw Cero running from the shooting, although neither he nor Smith had actually seen Cero shoot Fantasia. There was also evidence that there were many people running in the street after the shot was fired, that an unidentified man fired the shot, threw a revolver down, and slowly walked away from the chaotic scene, and that the bullet taken from Fantasia’s body had been fired from the revolver discovered near the scene of the shooting.
Although there was no evidence that Cero knew Fantasia, and no motive, on November 17, 1927, the jury found Cero guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to death. In spite of the fact that, after the trial, two new witnesses came forward to swear that Cero was not the man they saw drop the gun and run, Judge Lewis S. Cox denied three motions for a new trial. Cero filed an appeal based on the judge’s refusal to allow the defendant’s motion to challenge the jurors. Scharton argued, as he had before the trial began, that the entire jury was tainted. Scharton explained that police officers had interviewed potential jurors and forwarded the completed questionnaires to the Suffolk County District Attorney. At trial, Judge Cox had refused to allow Scharton to ask each potential juror about police questioning, ruling that potential jurors were to be asked only the statutory questions during voir dire.
On September 19, 1928, the appeal was denied. Justice Edward P. Pierce spoke for a unanimous court in rejecting the appeal and concluding that Cero had an impartial jury. Pierce found nothing improper with the questionnaire that police required potential jurors to complete, noting it was prepared for general use and not directed to Cero’s case. Pierce also upheld Judge Cox’s denial of Cero’s motion for a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence. Cero’s execution date was set for the week of November 4, 1928.
Prior to sentencing, Gallo attempted to bribe Smith by offering him $2,500 to recant his trial testimony and sign an affidavit stating he had falsely identified Cero as the man running from the scene of the shooting. Gallo was charged and found guilty of obstruction of justice and sentenced to two years in the same Charlestown prison in which Cero was awaiting execution.
On October 12, 1928, Gallo was nearly stabbed to death by Cero in the prison exercise yard. The violent attack puzzled authorities because Gallo was jailed for attempting to help Cero, and both men refused to talk. As the date of his execution approached, Cero, having second thoughts about maintaining his silence, gave the authorities his first full statement concerning the murder of Fantasia. According to Cero, after his arrest, Gallo assured his acquittal if he kept quiet about Gallo’s involvement in the murder. Cero, on death row, with his execution date approaching, no longer believed Gallo, and stabbed him in revenge for failing to keep his word. Cero now stated that, as he and Gallo walked along Prince Street on the afternoon of June 11, 1927, Gallo pulled out a revolver and shot a man, who he later learned was Fantasia. Cero also admitted to having fled, and that he accidentally dropped his hat, not a revolver, as had been inferred from Smith’s testimony. Gallo denied the allegations from his hospital bed. Cero’s claims were supported by another new witness to the killing, Philomena Romano, who had been with Fantasia when he was shot.
Cero’s older brother, Cosimo, convinced of Cero’s innocence, joined the defense group in an attempt to find witnesses and save Cero from execution. Cosimo’s persistent efforts led him to Romano, and on November 9, 1928, hours before Cero was to be executed, Romano appeared before Massachusetts Governor Alvan Tufts Fuller and identified Gallo, her former lover, as the man who shot Fantasia. Romano also supplied the missing motive for Fantasia’s murder: Romano had at one time lived with Gallo until she fell in love with Fantasia. On Fantasia’s order, Romano had slashed Gallo’s face with a razor, leaving a very noticeable scar. It now seemed Gallo had murdered Fantasia to avenge the humiliation he suffered from the attack. Romano’s testimony halted the execution. The State was four hours away from wrongfully executing Cero when Governor Fuller granted a stay of execution.
Gallo was indicted in January 1929 for the murder of Fantasia based on the testimonies of Cero and Romano. At this point, the Massachusetts Council Against the Death Penalty (“MCADP”) became involved in Cero’s defense. MCADP raised money to provide Cero with additional legal help and an investigator to assist in building a case against Gallo. The investigator’s first job was to find Romano, who had recanted her statement exonerating Cero and then disappeared. Cero once again received a stay of execution.
Gallo’s trial began on February 18, 1929 before Judge Cox. At the trial, Cero and Romano—who was found a few days before trial—testified that Gallo murdered Fantasia. Gallo testified, but failed to convince the jury of his alibi that he was in East Boston when Fantasia was shot. On March 1, 1929, Gallo was convicted as the sole killer of Fantasia.
On March 19, 1929, motions on behalf of Cero and Gallo for new trials were made before Judge Cox. On March 22, Judge Cox, recognizing that the Gallo verdict was inconsistent with the prior conviction of Cero for the identical crime, set aside both verdicts. A third trial was held in which Cero and Gallo were tried as accomplices in the murder.
On September 22, 1930, Cero and Gallo were tried on the original separate murder indictments before Judge William Adams Burns. The State presented evidence to show that both Cero and Gallo had guns and acted jointly to produce a single criminal result, the murder of Fantasia. Cero was used as a witness against Gallo, but the State failed to get Gallo to accuse Cero of murdering Fantasia because Gallo insisted he was elsewhere at the time of the murder. The Commonwealth suffered from another handicap—the second disappearance of Romano. Over the objections of Gallo’s counsel, Assistant District Attorney F.M. Sheehan, in Romano’s absence, was allowed to read from the transcript of her previous trial testimony in which she accused Gallo of murdering Fantasia. On October 2, 1930, a jury acquitted Cero and found Gallo guilty of first-degree murder. Cero returned to Italy a free man and Gallo appealed his conviction. The court affirmed Gallo’s conviction and he was sentenced to death.
Although the MCADP had helped shift the guilt for Fantasia’s murder from Cero to Gallo, they successfully lobbied Governor Joseph Ely to commute Gallo’s sentence to life imprisonment. According to newspaper reports, in July 1932, Gallo obtained a new trial and was acquitted. The reasons for acquittal seem unclear, but apparently Philomena Romano could no longer remember any details of Fantasia’s murder, and Gallo’s current girlfriend, Lillian Ruggiero, provided adequate alibi testimony.
The New York Times summed it up: “Thus ends this remarkable case. Justice has not been done. After five years both men are free. The juries were intelligent. The judges were excellent. The State ably presented a difficult case. A reasonable theory of the solution of the problem is implied in the outline of the more important facts. Truth, sometimes, is stranger than fiction.”
- Deborah Salako and Dolores Kennedy
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.