Associated Press Writer

BOSTON - A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a $102 million judgment against the government for withholding evidence that could have cleared four men who spent decades in prison - including two who died there - for a murder they didn't commit.

Joseph Salvati, Peter Limone and the families of Henry Tameleo and Louis Greco sued the federal government for malicious prosecution after U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner ruled in July 2007 that Boston FBI agents withheld evidence they knew could prove the men weren't involved in the 1965 killing of Edward "Teddy" Deegan, a small-time hoodlum who was shot in an alley.

"While we reject its finding that the government is liable for malicious prosecution, we uphold the court's alternate finding that the government is liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress," the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said on Thursday. "We conclude that the awards, though high, are not so grossly disproportionate to the harm sustained as to either shock our collective conscience or raise the specter of a miscarriage of justice."

A U.S. Department of Justice spokesman said the agency would only comment after studying the ruling.

Attorneys for some of the men, however, were not restrained in their reaction.

"It's a good day for civil rights, and I hope that the FBI will be able to put this sordid chapter in their history behind them and redeem themselves to be an institution that they once were," said Juliane Balliro, one of the lawyers representing Limone, Tameleo and their families.

Balliro said the quick ruling has left the two men and their families ecstatic.

Attorneys for Salvati and Greco did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment.

The district court judge said FBI agents were trying to protect informants when they encouraged a witness to lie, then withheld evidence they knew could prove Limone and the three other men weren't involved in the Deegan killing.

She said Boston FBI agents knew mob hitman Joseph "The Animal" Barboza lied when he named Limone, Salvati, Tameleo and Greco as the killers. She said the FBI considered the four "collateral damage" in its war against the Mafia, the bureau's top priority in the 1960s.

Tameleo and Greco died behind bars, while Salvati and Limone spent three decades in prison before they were exonerated in 2001.

A state judge found two Boston FBI agents had allowed Barboza to frame the men because Barboza and his friend Vincent "Jimmy" Flemmi, one of Deegan's killers, were FBI informants who provided evidence in the agency's highly publicized war against La Cosa Nostra.

"This case exemplifies a situation in which the end did not justify the government's use of very unattractive means," the appeals court said Thursday. "In its zeal to accomplish a worthwhile objective (stamping out organized crime), the FBI stooped too low."

The appeals court said the district court used a permissible methodology in computing damages. The district court judge had awarded $26 million of the $101.7 million judgment to Limone, who served 33 years in prison. Greco's estate gets $28 million, Salvati gets $29 million and Tameleo's estate gets $13 million; the men's wives, ex-wives and children get the rest of the money.

Limone and Salvati were exonerated after FBI memos dating back to the Deegan case surfaced.