Fla. court voids ex-FBI agent John Connolly's murder conviction

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Ex-FBI agent John Connolly's murder conviction overturned
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Fla. court voids ex-FBI agent John Connolly's murder conviction
This pair of file photos shows Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, left, on Sept. 22, 2008, as he testified in a Miami court in the murder trial of former FBI agent John Connolly; and James "Whitey" Bulger, right, in a June 23, 2011 booking photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service. Flemmi, Bulger's alleged former partner serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to 10 killings, is expected to testify in Bulger's trial Thursday, July 18, 2013 in federal court in Boston. Bulger, now 83, is accused in a 32-count racketeering indictment and in playing a role in 19 killings in the 1970s and ‘80s while he allegedly led the Winter Hill Gang in Boston. (AP Photos/J. Pat Carter and U.S. Marshals Service, File)
This photo released by the U.S. Attorney's Office and presented Tuesday, June 25, 2013, as evidence during the trial James "Whitey" Bulger in U.S. District Court in Boston, shows nightclub owner Richard Castucci, left, with singer Frank Sinatra. Prosecutors say Castucci was killed by Bulger's gang after former FBI Agent John Connolly told Bulger that Castucci had become an informant and had told the FBI where two members of the gang were hiding in New York. (AP Photo/U.S. Attorney's Office)
BOSTON - SEPTEMBER 20: Boston District 1. John Connolly Jr., FBI agent, points as he and another agent take Francesco 'Frankie' Angiulo to court. John Connolly was questioned regarding his association with Boston mob figures Stephen 'The Rifleman' Flemmi and James 'Whitey' Bulger. (Photo by Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
FILE - This is an undated file photo showing reputed New England organized crime figure Stephen K. "The Rifleman" Flemmi. Flemmi was a cohort of James "Whitey" Bulger who cut a deal with FBI agent John Connolly to provide information on the Italian Mafia in exchange for protection from the FBI. Bulger, was captured Wednesday June 22, 2011 near Los Angeles after living on the run for 16 years, authorities said. (AP Photo/FBI)
FILE - In a Jan. 15, 2009 file photo, former FBI agent John Connolly, right, arrives for his trial in Miami. Connolly was sentenced to 40 years in prison for slipping information to Boston mobsters that led to the 1982 shooting death of a Miami gambling executive. Connolly is asking a federal appeals court Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011, to overturn his conviction and 40-year prison sentence. (AP Photo/ Peter Andrew Bosch, Pool, File)
Former FBI agent John Connolly, sits between his attorneys during his trial in Miami Thursday Jan. 15, 2009. Connolly was sentenced Thursday to 40 years in prison for slipping information to Boston mobsters that led to the 1982 shooting death of a Miami gambling executive. (AP Photo/ Peter Andrew Bosch, Pool)
Former FBI agent John Connolly, right, arrives forhis trial in Miami Thursday Jan. 15, 2009. Connolly was sentenced Thursday to 40 years in prison for slipping information to Boston mobsters that led to the 1982 shooting death of a Miami gambling executive. (AP Photo/ Peter Andrew Bosch, Pool)
Former FBI agent John Connolly, right, arrives for his trial in Miami Thursday Jan. 15, 2009. Connolly was sentenced Thursday to 40 years in prison for slipping information to Boston mobsters that led to the 1982 shooting death of a Miami gambling executive. (AP Photo/ Peter Andrew Bosch, Pool)
Former FBI agent John Connolly, looks on during his trial in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in Miami Thursday Jan. 15, 2009. Connolly was sentenced Thursday to 40 years in prison for slipping information to Boston mobsters that led to the 1982 shooting death of a Miami gambling executive. (AP Photo/ Peter Andrew Bosch, Pool)
Former FBI agent John Connolly, right, geta a hug from his wife Elizabeth Connolly in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in Miami Thursday Jan. 15, 2009. Connolly was sentenced to 40 years after he was convicted of second degree murder for the 1982 slaying of John Callahan. (AP Photo/ Peter Andrew Bosch, Pool)
Former FBI agent John Connolly listens to the testimony of Thomas Daly in Miami, Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008. Connolly, 68, is accused of helping the Boston mob murder Miami gambling executive John Callahan in 1982, at Miami International Airport. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Former Boston FBI agent Thomas Daly reads a document during his testimony in Miami, Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008. Daly testified during the trial of former FBI agent John Connolly, who is accused of helping the Boston mob murder Miami gambling executive John Callahan in 1982, at Miami International Airport. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Assistant State Attorney Michael Von Samft points out Anthony Ciulla's photgraph on the Winter Hill Organization's family chart, during the trial of John Connolly in Miami, Florida, Wednesday, September 17, 2008. Connolly, a former FBI agent, is accused of helping the Boston mob murder Miami gambling executive John Callahan, in 1982. At the top of the chart, third from the left, is John Martorano, a former mob hitman who testified against Connolly. (Photo by Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images)
Former FBI agent John Connolly, center, was found guilty on Thursday, November 6, 2008, by a jury in Miami, Florida, for helping the Boston mob murder Miami gambling executive John Callahan in 1982. Here Connolly listens to the judge while flanked by his attorneys Bruce Fleisher, left, and Manuel Casabielle. (Photo by Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images)
6-24-08 Al DIAZ / MIAMI HERALD STAFF -- Mob hitman John Martorano testifies against former FBI agent John J. Connolly during court hearing at Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building. Seen here is Connolly
6-24-08 Al DIAZ / MIAMI HERALD STAFF -- Mob hitman John Martorano testifies against former FBI agent John J. Connolly during court hearing at Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building. Seen here handcuffed is Connolly
BOSTON - SEPTEMBER 15: With his lawyer, Tracy Miner, on his side, former FBI agent John Connolly walks to Federal Court amongst the media. He was sentenced 10 years and one month in prison. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - JUNE 28: Boston Deputy Supt. John Barry, in plainclothes, listens as Boston Detective Lt. Jerome McCallum speaks to reporters at a press conference outside the Blackfriars Pub, 105 Summer St., where the five massacred bodies had been found that morning. Interestingly, the FBI's Organized Crime Squad had been investigating Solmonte and the Blackfriars and among the investigators was now-disgraced FBI Agent John Connolly, presently serving time in Florida for his role as FBI informant to Bulger in the 1982 murder of John Callahan, a crooked business partner of Bulger's. (Photo by George Rizer/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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By CURT ANDERSON

MIAMI (AP) -- A divided appeals court on Wednesday threw out the murder conviction and lengthy prison sentence for a former FBI agent in the decades-old mob-style killing of a gambling executive, one of numerous slayings linked to jailed Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.

Florida's 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 that former agent John Connolly was improperly convicted and sentenced to 40 years for his role in the 1982 slaying of World Jai-Alai President John Callahan. But further appeals are possible, so Connolly, 73, remains in prison for now.

A hit man testified in the 2008 trial that he fatally shot Callahan after Connolly tipped Bulger and his lieutenant, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, that the executive would implicate them in another death. The appeals court initially upheld Connolly's conviction in 2011 without comment but overturned it after Connolly's lawyer asked for reconsideration.

In the court's new ruling, a panel of judges determined that Connolly's second-degree murder conviction was barred by the statute of limitations applicable at the time. His attorneys argued that prosecutors improperly used a firearms allegation to enhance the charge to one potentially punishable by life in prison - for which the statute of limitations would not apply.

"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 limitation," wrote Chief Judge Frank A. Shepherd and Judge Richard J. Suarez in the majority opinion. "Without the fundamentally erroneous reclassification, the first-degree felony of second-degree murder was time-barred."

Judge Leslie B. Rothenberg dissented, contending the majority was making "grave error" in overturning the conviction.

"The evidence as to both his participation in the murder and his possession of a firearm during his participation is overwhelming," Rothenberg wrote.

Connolly has long denied a role in Callahan's slaying. Trial testimony showed he was 1,500 miles away in Massachusetts when Callahan was killed by Bulger's hit man John Martorano, who made a deal with prosecutors in return for his testimony in Connolly's case and others. The only evidence that Connolly might have had a firearm when Callahan was killed is the standard FBI practice that agents are armed while on duty.

Connolly's younger brother, James Connolly, said Wednesday in a phone interview that he was still trying to digest the ruling but is pleased with the result.

"I think it shows that he was wrongly convicted," he said.

The court said Connolly should be freed from prison based on the erroneous conviction, but it issued a stay so prosecutors could either ask the entire 3rd District court to consider the case or take it to the Florida Supreme Court. A spokesman for Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

Bulger, 84, was a fugitive for 16 years before his 2011 capture at an apartment in Santa Monica, California. He was convicted in August 2013 of a host of crimes in a racketeering indictment, including playing a role in 11 murders while he led a violent gang. Bulger is serving a life sentence in federal prison but is appealing.

Connolly was convicted in 2002 of racketeering for his dealings with Bulger's gang, mainly protecting them from prosecution and tipping them about informants in their ranks. He was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in that case. That sentence has been completed.

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AP Legal Affairs Writer Denise Lavoie in Boston contributed to this story.

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