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Convict on trial for plot to decapitate U.S. judge, prosecutor

By Bernard Vaughan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A convict bent on revenge plotted to have the federal judge and prosecutor who sent him to prison decapitated and their heads preserved in formaldehyde as souvenirs, a government lawyer told jurors in federal court in New York on Thursday.

Joseph Romano was sentenced in 2012 to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to charges related to running a fraudulent valuable coin-selling operation based in Long Island.

Once incarcerated, Romano is accused of having told a confidential informant he wanted to hire a hit man to kill U.S. District Judge Joseph Bianco and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Gatz and, in a "sickening twist," preserve both their heads and Gatz's breasts, prosecutor Una Dean told stone-faced jurors.

Romano "was furious" over his conviction, Dean said. "So what did he do? He turned to violence, gruesome...violence."

Romano confessed to the plot after he was arrested, Dean said. Romano is charged with two counts of conspiring to murder a government employee and faces life in prison.

Romano, wearing a blue cardigan and white open-collared shirt, sat expressionless through most of Dean's opening argument in court, in a case presided over by Judge John Keenan of the Southern District of New York.

The case is being heard in Brooklyn, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, but Keenan, a Manhattan-based judge, is presiding because Eastern District judges have been disqualified from hearing the case.

Prosecutors say Romano offered to pay $40,000 to an undercover official posing as a hit man. An associate outside of prison, Dejvid Mirkovic, acted as Romano's middle man to arrange the plot. Mirkovic was sentenced to 24 years in prison in August after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to murder a government employee.

Michael Bachrach, a lawyer for Romano, told jurors his client had been entrapped.

Romano had indeed been talking in prison about his desire to seek revenge on the judge and prosecutor, Bachrach said. But he said it was all an act to look tough in front murderers, gang-bangers and other dangerous inmates.

Romano "needs to act a little bit crazy, a little bit nuts, in order to survive," Bachrach said.

Bachrach also told jurors the government's informant, Gerald Machacek, was a long-time criminal looking for leniency and "begging to become a snitch." In audio recordings, a wired-up Machecek egged Romano on, continually bringing up the judge and the prosecutor, Bachrach said.

"Killing a judge and prosecutor isn't going to get you out of jail," Bachrach said. "You know what does? Cooperating."

Bachrach said that Romano only confessed because he thought he might get his sentence reduced by cooperating with prosecutors on other investigations. He also admitted that Romano was interested in escaping from prison, as prosecutors allege.

"Would he have tried to escape if he could?" Bachrach said. "Absolutely. But that doesn't make him a murderer."

(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)

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