BOSTON — As we look back on 2013, we remember the conclusion of the decades-long effort to find and then try long-time Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger.
Reporter David Boeri joined WBUR’s Morning Edition to reflect on his summer in court at an event many thought would never happen — the racketeering trial of the 84-year-old Bulger.
Morning Edition Host Bob Oakes: David, Bulger was convicted of 31 of 32 counts he faced this summer. When we look back at the trial, was there ever any doubt that he would be convicted?
David Boeri: Well, there was never much doubt that he was going to be convicted of racketeering with all those predicate acts — you know, over 30 predicate acts he was charged with — and his lawyers really challenged few of those counts against him. They spent almost all their time refuting the idea, trying to refute the idea, that he was an FBI informant and also trying to defend him from the allegations that he killed women. That was central to him, and they didn’t want him convicted — he didn’t want to be convicted for killing women. In the end, the defense succeeded to the extent that the jury was unable to decide whether or not Bulger had murdered one woman. They decided that the government had proven that he had murdered the other, Debbie Hussey.
You covered Bulger a long time. When you look back at the trial, do you find it almost anti-climatic?
For the families, it certainly wasn’t that. It was drama; it was incredibly painful, searingly painful, with all the evidence that they had to confront for the first time. Photographs and presentations of jaws, bones, skulls — that was particularly horrifying, and that was dramatic. But for anybody who was going to this trial to try to find new information, if there was new information and expecting it, it was a disappointment. Because back in June of 2011, after he was captured, we imagined Bulger being able to come back here, and, if he testified, and he told the truth, he could tell us who he bribed — all the Boston cops, the FBI agents, and others. He could tell us about the deals and the extent of the corruption in his relationship with the FBI.
So tell us about what in trial we learned about that relationship?
Well, you learned very little about that relationship because the prosecution made sure that the FBI and Bulger’s deal with the FBI was largely minimized. They tried to keep it away from the jurors. They were concerned the jurors might nullify the criminal charges against Bulger in disgust for the FBI corruption and the deal that there might have been. And of course, the defense attorneys for Bulger continued to point at corruption, the deal and corruption within the FBI. Here’s defense attorney Hank Brennan:
Brennan: How many agents were prosecuted? One. 2002, special prosecutor comes in to clean out and investigate the Department of Justice. How many people were prosecuted? One? John Connolly? We all know there’s much, much more.
John Connolly, the FBI agent who was Bulger’s handler, the only FBI agent to ever go to prison when in fact we know there were numbers of FBI agents without whom Bulger could never have operated. And then, he was also referring to the prosecutor who came in here and spent years and millions of dollars and a report that was supposed to lay out all the wrong-doing and never filed a report. When the government prosecutors said that “the FBI is not on trial; Bulger is,” there were a whole lot of people sitting in that courtroom — the families of Bulger’s victims — who were convinced otherwise.
You’ve spent a lot of time before, during and after the trial with the families of people murdered by Bulger or at Bulger’s direction. All the murders were actually elements of just one racketeering charge, and the jury found the government had proved Bulger responsible for only 11 of the 19 murder cases in front of it. So remind us about the family reactions.
Reactions vary. Those families who expected justice and found that the jury hadn’t proven that Bulger committed the murders of their loved ones were bitterly, bitterly disappointed. They criticized the prosecution for not spending enough time on those murders. The reality was these were early murders. The primary trigger man in them was John Martorano, an abhorrent witness, and that came out through the defense efforts. Then, you have other families who after years and years of struggle — like the Donahues, who filed civil suits against the government, and the government, the Department of Justice opposed them by attacking the credibility of government witnesses, who were the same witnesses that the Department of Justice was using in the criminal prosecution. So for the Donahues, especially, it was reassuring. It was vindication. Here’s Tommy Donahue, the son of Michael Donahue, an innocent man who was shot down when Bulger went out to assassinate another person.
Tommy Donahue: “After 31 years, after a lot of FBI cover-ups, deceits and lies, we finally have somebody guilty in the murder of my father.”
So that was Tommy Donahue. And on the day of Bulger’s sentencing, Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. prosecutor came out, and in fact, it was a hard-fought and deserved victory for the prosecutors who had been going after Bulger for years. But Carmen Ortiz called Bulger “ancient history,” and it was as if you could throw Bulger down a memory hole. And yet, even if he is down in that memory hole, what happened in this city because of the FBI’s corruption, and its dealings with Whitey Bulger has not been held to account. It’s still there. It still goes on. It hasn’t been laid out, and that doesn’t go down a memory hole.
And do you think we’ll ever learn the full truth about that sordid relationship
Probably not. Because the two people who know most about it are Whitey Bulger and John Connolly, the FBI agent. Connolly has proven to be the only person in this case who hasn’t rolled over for the government. And Bulger’s not going to talk.
Do you think that we will hear from Bulger in at least some way down the road?
Absolutely. He’s writing letters, and he seems to spend his day writing letters. Will there be a book from Bulger? I expect there will be if he can get it through the Bureau of Prisons. I think he can. And it will be his story, his version, but untested. Because in the end, he never took the stand, and that was what we were expecting, perhaps hoping for that we would get some information.