BOSTON — Attorneys for James “Whitey” Bulger have this summer borne a task that could have easily made them pariahs. They’ve defended a notorious gangster described by prosecutors as “one of the most vicious, violent and calculating criminals that ever walked the streets of Boston.”
Yet as jurors began debating 32 counts of murder and other charges against Bulger on Tuesday, many people in Boston — even some relatives of Bulger’s alleged murder victims — were applauding what J.W. Carney Jr. and Hank Brennan have done to expose how arms of the federal government enabled crime to flourish.
“A lot of people say the government was not on trial here,” said Tommy Donahue, whose father was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1982 after corrupt FBI agents tipped off Bulger’s gang that his father’s friend was about to implicate Bulger in a murder. “Yes, they were.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak told the jury in closing arguments Monday that a working relationship with FBI agents — which Bulger claims yielded a promise of immunity from prosecution — did not make him any more or less guilty than the evidence showed.
trial’s great ironies that people fed up with organized crime and the human suffering that stems from it have found themselves rooting for two lawyers who admit their client is a master criminal who made millions from drugs, illegal gambling and other criminal enterprises.
“People feel the government does have enormous power, and frankly there’s been some abuse of that power here,” said Michael Coyne, associate dean of the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover. “We’re rooting for (Brennan and Carney) to maybe level the playing field a little more because of concerns about how heavily the government was involved here.”
Bostonians have had reasons to cheer the Bulger team’s tactics even if they don’t share the duo’s ultimate goal of seeing Bulger acquitted.
From the trial’s start on June 12 until the last witness left the stand Aug. 2, Brennan and Carney worked at uncovering government practices that allowed violent crimes to go unpunished, and in some cases, helped murders take place.
One of the defense team’s fattest targets has been the Boston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which prosecutors admitted in closing arguments was “a mess” in the 1970s and ’80s. Former agents, led by questions from Brennan and Carney, described an FBI culture in which agents routinely took bribes, leaked information to criminals, blocked investigations and retaliated against a whistleblower who tried to stop the leaks.
“You want to murder Wimpy Bennett? I’ll tell you the bus stop he’s going to be at,” Brennan said in closing arguments as he quoted FBI agent Paul Rico in a conversation with Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, Bulger’s partner. Flemmi testified that when Bennett, his gang war rival in the 1960s, showed up for the bus “right on time,” Flemmi shot him.
Such testimony over the course of the trial, now in its eighth week, led the prosecution to give a nod to the defense in closing arguments.
“The defense probably did a better job of proving this than the prosecution did: The Boston FBI was a mess,” prosecutor Wyshak said. “But there was no grand scheme here,” he added, that would implicate more than “a few bad apples” in the government.
Another big target: the government’s ongoing practice of forging agreements with criminals, who receive lighter sentences in exchange for helping bring down their partners in crime.
Bulger’s attorneys publicly examined deals that made John Martorano a free man after he served 12 years for 20 murders and delivered freedom for Bulger protégé Kevin Weeks, who served five years for his roles in five murders.
“The defense is arguing these are sweetheart deals,” said David Frank, managing editor of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a newspaper that covers legal affairs. “When you take into account the amount of killing that’s at issue here … the deals the government made just don’t make sense. They defy logic. That’s what the defense is trying to argue.”
Wyshak acknowledged Monday that Martorano “deserved to spend the rest of his life in prison,” but said the government instead struck a deal with him — including a $20,000 payment to help him get on his feet upon release from prison — because it needed him to bring down Bulger.
“The only thing worse than making a deal with John Martorano would have been not making a deal with John Martorano,” Wyshak said in closing arguments as he explained Martorano’s role in bringing down Flemmi and others. “The government held its nose and made a deal.”