Francis “Mickey” Featherstone, a leader of New York City’s Irish organized crime gang known as the Westies, was set up by other members of the gang to take the fall for the 1985 murder of Michael Holly. Featherstone was convicted in 1986, but his conviction was reversed later that year when the actual shooter was identified.
New York law enforcement attributed at least thirty unsolved murders to the Westies in the 1970s and 1980s, and they were known as an extremely violent group, even by gang standards. Despite a notably sweet and boyish face, Mickey Featherstone, a Vietnam veteran who had talked his way into the Green Berets at just seventeen years old, was known as one of the most vicious and ruthless members of the gang. He had been discharged from the army in 1967, suffering from hallucinations, and spent years in and out of a mental hospital. Prior to the murder of Michael Holly, Featherstone had been charged with at least three other murders, but each time he had entered pleas of insanity and was acquitted. He spent periods of time back in a mental hospital, but always returned to involvement with the Westies.
In the late 1970s, the Westies began collaborating with the Gambino family and its notorious Mafia, with the Westies functioning as an enforcer arm of the Gambino ring – carrying out assigned executions and sharing in weekly profits. It was very difficult for police and prosecutors to convict men associated with this group because witnesses were terrified of the members and their willingness to quickly kill anyone who crossed them.
In 1977, a Westies member named John Bokun was shot and killed, and the Westies attributed this killing to Michael Holly, who moved out of town immediately after Bokun’s death. However, Holly returned to New York City several years later. On April 25, 1985, 41-year-old Holly was walking down a New York street when a man stepped out of a car and shot him five times, using a gun with a silencer. There were witnesses to the shooting, all of whom described the shooter as a man fitting Featherstone’s description. The car driven by the shooter had been abandoned on the street, and it was traced to the trucking company where Featherstone was employed at that time.
Based on the car and the eyewitness identifications, Featherstone was convicted of Holly’s murder in April 1986 and sentenced to spend 25 years to life in prison. Featherstone was stunned to finally be convicted of a murder, and not just because he had dodged so many guilty verdicts in the past. In this case, he was not only innocent of the crime, he also knew who had done it. He had been informed by Westies member Kevin Kelly the night before Holly’s murder that Holly was going to be killed. The shooter, Featherstone had learned, was William “Billy” Bokun, the brother of Holly’s alleged victim, John Bokun. Billy Bokun’s attorney was Kenneth Aronson, the same attorney who had represented Featherstone in Holly’s murder trial.
After his conviction, Featherstone quickly concluded that Westies members and Kenneth Aronson had colluded to set him up to take the fall for Holly’s murder. Featherstone contacted prosecutors from his trial and convinced them that the shooter may have been Billy Bokun, wearing a wig to look like Featherstone. The District Attorney’s office agreed to work with Featherstone’s wife, Sissy Featherstone, to see if they could obtain evidence confirming Featherstone’s claims. Sissy Featherstone had regular interactions with Billy Bokun, and she was able to record Bokun describing the shooting of Michael Holly while wearing a wig, as well as expressing his belief that Kevin Kelly had asked him to wear the wig in order to eliminate Featherstone as a competitor for power within the Westies. With this evidence in hand showing that Featherstone’s fellow gang members had turned on him and set him up, his conviction was overturned in September 1986, and Featherstone agreed to become an informant.
With the new information provided by Featherstone in 1986, prosecutors were able to obtain indictments against eight members of the Westies, including leader Jimmy Coonan, and all but one were convicted. These convictions marked the demise of the reign of the Westies. After providing the necessary information about the crimes of his fellow Westies, 38-year-old Francis “Mickey” Featherstone entered the federal witness protection program.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
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.