Lawyers for alleged former Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger made little attempt to suggest their client was not a lifelong criminal as they delivered their closing arguments Monday afternoon in Mr. Bulger's two-month murder and racketeering trial.
In fact, attorney Jay Carney freely admitted that over two decades as the leader of South Boston’s infamous Winter Hill gang in the 1970s and ‘80s, Bulger "made millions engaging in criminal activity."
But instead of lingering over the individual charges in the 32-count indictment – which include involvement in 19 murders – Mr. Carney and his co-counsel Hank Brennan trained a laser-like focus on what they said was the prosecution's colossal mishandling of the case, from covering up decades of corruption in the local branch of the FBI to building its case around wildly unreliable witnesses.
The government's star testimony was provided by three mobsters with close ties to Bulger, “despicable, evil, terrifying” men, Carney said, whose very livelihoods were built on lying to police, victims, and each other.
He went on to systematically interrogate the credibility of those men – Stephen Flemmi, John Martorano, and Kevin Weeks – each of whom took a plea deal in their own criminal proceedings in return for testifying against Bulger. (Mr. Weeks served five years for participation in five murders, while Mr. Martorano spent 12 years in jail after admitting to 20 killings. Mr. Flemmi, the last to cooperate, used his cooperation to avoid the death penalty.)
“The government is buying testimony; the witnesses are selling,” Carney said. “The currency that’s used here? How much freedom a person is going to get…. [But] ladies and gentlemen, the price that you pay for testimony gives you no assurance that it’s the truth.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Brennan argued, the prosecution refused to probe what he called an endemically corrupt local FBI office, where agents doggedly pursued Boston’s fearsome Italian mafia “at all cost” – while turning a blind eye to Winter Hill’s activities and tapping its leadership for information.
“They wanted the accolades, they wanted the glory, and they were willing to … protect murderers because of pride,” Brennan said. “It wasn’t about [protecting] the community – this was about their quest to get the mafia.”
Although not formally part of any charge, Bulger’s relationship with the local FBI has been a fraught subject throughout the trial. Prosecutors say he was an informant who fed the agency information for decades. Bulger admits to bribing FBI agents for information, but flatly denies he was a "rat," and at one stage of the trial verbally attacked a witness who claimed he was.
Neither side, however, denies Bulger’s off-color relationship with former FBI agent John Connolly, who saved Bulger from arrest in 1994 by tipping him off to an indictment against him. Bulger fled Boston and was not seen again until 2011. (Mr. Connolly is currently serving a prison term in Florida.)
But Brennan said the prosecution was letting Connolly take the fall for a deeply corrupt institutional culture.
“There has to be an accounting,” he said, for all the criminals tied up in Bulger’s world. “It doesn’t matter if they’re part of a gang, if they’re independent, or if they’re part of the government.”
The three-hour defense statement followed a morning of closing arguments from prosecuting attorney Fred Wyshak, who urged the jury not to be distracted by the defense’s attempt to suck them into discussions about Bulger’s ties to the FBI.
“In the final analysis, ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have to decide whether Mr. Bulger was an informant or not,” Wyshak said. “That’s not something that’s an element of any of these crimes. “
But Carney said the jury had a responsibility to peer into the holes in the government’s case.
“There is one instance where a small group of people can stand up to the federal government and successfully take [it] on – you are those folks,” Carney told the jury. “You can say it with courage, that the prosecutors have not met their burden of proof.”
As Wyshak pointed out on rebuttal, Carney wasn’t exactly arguing that his client was an innocent man, just one who deserved to go free.