James “Whitey” Bulger, the former fugitive Boston gangster found guilty in August of 11 murders, is set to learn whether he will be sentenced to perhaps one or even two life terms as family members of his victims look on.
Today’s sentencing may be the last public appearance for Bulger, who ran a criminal gang in South Boston from the 1970s to the early 1990s. He was captured in 2011 in Santa Monica, California, after hiding from authorities for 16 years and sharing a space on the FBI’s most-wanted list alongside Osama bin Laden.
Bulger, 84, who didn’t testify during his 10-week trial in Boston, declined one last chance to speak his mind yesterday during a hearing that is often used by defendants to seek forgiveness from their victims. After about 15 family members of his victims read statements, Bulger was asked by U.S. District Judge Denise Casper if he wanted the opportunity to talk.
“No,” Bulger replied.
“I would have liked to hear what he had to say,” said William O’Brien Jr., whose father was murdered in 1974. “I think he was scared. I think he was scared to face all those families.”
O’Brien said he corresponded by letter with Bulger while he has been in prison.
“He’s not so much apologetic but he’s not unemotional either,” he said.
J.W. Carney Jr., Bulger’s lawyer, said his client didn’t speak yesterday because he was prevented from offering his defense and he believes the trial was a sham.
“To listen to those folks come forward and say how this personally affected them, I don’t think James Bulger was immune to that emotion,” Carney said. “A couple of times, he almost turned to face them.”
The first family member to speak yesterday, Sean McGonagle, whose father was killed in 1974, started by addressing the court with: “Families, court, Satan.”
“You’re a domestic terrorist, fueled by greed and a sickening ego,” McGonagle said to Bulger. “You thought you could play both sides against the other” and “when you had to choose a side, you did what most cowards do, you ran.”
While most convicts use the allocution portion of a sentencing hearing to seek leniency and apologize to their victims, it’s “pretty much preordained” that Bulger never will be free again, and he therefore had little to lose by lashing out, said Mark Pearlstein, a criminal-defense lawyer who was a prosecutor in Boston from 1989 to 2000 who is now with McDermott Will & Emery LLP.
Anthony Cardinale, a lawyer who represented victims of Bulger’s extortion schemes, said he believes Bulger may blurt out something today after sentencing even though he gave up his chance to make a formal statement.
“He’ll want the last word,” Cardinale said.
On Aug. 12, jurors found Bulger guilty on 31 counts of racketeering and involvement in 11 killings, though he was cleared in the deaths of seven other people.
Prosecutors on Nov. 7 filed a sentencing memorandum seeking two consecutive life sentences for Bulger, plus five years, calling him “one of the most violent and despicable criminals in Boston history.”
The judge had barred Bulger’s defense team from telling the jury about his claim that he struck an immunity deal with the U.S. Justice Department years ago that protected him from prosecution in exchange for protecting the life of a prosecutor.
Before the trial, the U.S. argued the deal was a fantasy, and that no government official can confer what amounts to a “license to kill.”
Bulger’s lawyers argued he was being blamed for killings carried out by the government’s star witnesses. His lawyer said the testimony of Bulger’s ex-associates can’t be trusted because they cut deals with prosecutors to avoid lengthy prison terms or death sentences.
Though it’s unlikely Bulger will avoid at least one life term, the judge must ensure the sentence meets federal guidelines and takes into account every aspect of the proceedings to avoid a lengthy appeal, Pearlstein said.
“If you’re the district court judge who spent the summer trying this case, the last thing you want to do is commit an error which is going to open this up” to appeal. “Out of concern for the victims’ families, I don’t think the judge wants them to have to go through this again.”
Prosecutors said Bulger was an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation during most of the time he was leading his Irish-American organized-crime gang and that at least three agents were corrupted by his schemes.
The trial raised questions about the extent to which federal agents wrongfully protected Bulger from local and state authorities for years before he disappeared, letting him kill and steal in exchange for tips about a bigger FBI target, the Patriarca Family organized crime group.
Bulger was charged with 48 racketeering violations, one of which included allegations he was involved in 19 murders. The claims included extortion and possession of machine guns and other firearms used in crimes.
Bulger went into hiding in 1994, tipped off about impending charges. The warning came from his longtime FBI handler, Special Agent John Connolly, who’s now serving 50 years in prison for crimes linked to Bulger, including murder.
The FBI, which offered $2 million for information leading to his arrest, described him as one of its most notorious fugitives, known for infiltrating the FBI and “sowing seeds of public distrust in law enforcement that remain in South Boston to this day.”
John Morris, Connolly’s supervisor at the bureau, was also implicated. He got immunity from prosecution by admitting he accepted cash from Bulger in exchange for protecting him. Morris testified against Connolly and was a witness against Bulger.
When the jury read its verdict in August, Bulger showed no emotion and stared straight ahead as the verdicts were read. After the jury was dismissed, Bulger gave the thumbs up sign to two of his nieces who attended almost every day of the trial. Family members of victims cried in court.
At trial, jurors heard from prosecution witnesses including former allies and friends of Bulger, some still in prison and seeking leniency, who testified they conspired with him in some of the killings.
Of the 19 murders in the case, Bulger was convicted of 11 and acquitted of seven. The jury made no finding on the murder of Debra Davis, who was the girlfriend of Stephen Flemmi, a former Bulger associate who testified Bulger strangled Davis because she learned they were informants for the FBI. Flemmi, who claimed Bulger killed Davis, said he removed her teeth and wrapped her body in a tarp for burial in a secret grave.
“We got you, you rat,” Marie Mahoney, who was 11 years old when her father, William O’Brien, was allegedly killed by Bulger, said to him in court yesterday.
O’Brien’s murder wasn’t proven at trial but the judge allowed Mahoney to speak.
Among the witnesses at trial was Patricia Donahue, whose husband Michael, 32, was a bystander gunned down by Bulger during a 1982 hit on a former gang associate the gangster believed was going to be an informant against him.
Witnesses also included John Martorano, a former gunman who said he killed 20 people, sometimes on Bulger’s orders.
Martorano, who was a fugitive living in Florida from 1978 to 1995, spent 12 years and two months in federal prison under a plea agreement for his crimes. He was released from prison in 2007 and agreed to help in the case against Bulger.
Kevin Weeks, a former ally of Bulger who testified against the defendant and took the stand in previous related cases, reached a plea deal with prosecutors on drug charges and served five years in prison. He was released in 2005.
Bulger, who grew up in the predominantly Irish-Catholic housing projects of South Boston, became involved in serious crime at a young age, including rape, and spent three years in the Alcatraz federal prison for bank robbery before rising to dominate much of Boston’s criminal underworld, the FBI has said.
Bulger’s brother William, the former longtime president of the state Senate, was forced out as president of the University of Massachusetts in 2003, after he admitted he spoke to his fugitive brother in the 1990s and didn’t help law enforcement capture him. William Bulger didn’t attend the trial or yesterday’s hearing. Bulger’s brother Jackie attended the hearing and didn’t speak to reporters.
Bulger’s girlfriend, Catherine Greig, who had gone into hiding with him, was also arrested when Bulger was captured. In March 2012, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor a fugitive and was sentenced to eight years in a federal prison.
The case is U.S. v. Weeks, 99-cr-10371, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).