By Noreen O'Donnell
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Joseph Massino, the first boss of a New York organized crime family to break the code of silence and testify against a former associate, will be released from prison early for helping the government, according to federal court documents.
Convicted of eight murders, Massino, the 70-year-old former head of the Bonanno crime family, will be set free in 60 days, giving the government time to make arrangements for his safety, his lawyer Edward McDonald told Reuters on Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis reduced his two life sentences to time served after a hearing on Wednesday in federal court in Brooklyn.
Massino has spent a little more than 10 years in prison. Until he began cooperating with officials, he had faced the death penalty at the direction of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn, which described him as one of the most powerful members of the Mafia at the time of his arrest in 2003, had asked that his sentence be reduced.
It said in a legal motion that his cooperation as the first mob boss to testify publicly against a crime associate was an important milestone in the Department of Justice's efforts to dismantle the crime syndicate known as La Cosa Nostra.
"His testimony sent a powerful message to the criminal world that the Mafia is not an organization with honor, but a criminal society that feeds off of murder, violent crime and victimization," the government wrote in court papers.
While imprisoned, Massino recorded conversations with an acting boss of the Bonanno family, which detailed threats against an assistant U.S. attorney, described various murders, told of bribing law enforcement officials in the 1960s and provided information about hundreds of members of organized crime families, according to the legal documents.
That information was used to prosecute 10 criminal cases and in the investigation of four successive leaders of the Bonanno family, the government said in court documents.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
In the legal motion, the office said it expected Massino to continue to provide assistance in future criminal cases.
"Without cooperating witnesses like Massino, all too often these crimes go unsolved and those responsible unpunished," the government said in court papers.
The one-time Bonanno boss was expected to be moved and to receive a new identity as part of the government's witness protection program, his lawyer McDonald said.
McDonald, who was once a U.S. attorney who prosecuted Massino on a racketeering charge in 1986 and is now a private attorney defending him, said Massino was ill and had many health problems. He didn't provide details.
"Mr. Massino's serious health problems almost certainly limit his longevity significantly," McDonald wrote in a legal motion.
(This story adds dropped word "General" in 4th paragraph)
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Bernadette Baum)