James “Whitey” Bulger, the violent mob boss who terrorized South Boston from the 1970s through the ‘80s, much of that time while serving as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was sentenced Thursday to two consecutive life sentences plus five years.
In July, a jury found Mr. Bulger guilty of 31 of 32 federal charges including racketeering and extortion, plus the murders of 11 people. It was a trial some thought might never happen; Bulger went on the run in 1994, eluding authorities for 16 years – his face on billboards and wanted posters nationwide. Finally he and girlfriend, Catherine Grieg, were captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011.
All the way through to sentencing, Bulger, through his attorneys, maintained that the court had deprived him of the right to defend himself by refusing to hear evidence supporting his claim that the FBI had granted him immunity for his crimes while he was an informant. The judge had excluded that possibility early in his trial.
At Thursday's sentencing, Bulger, wearing an orange jailhouse jumpsuit, did not make a statement, remaining silent as US District Court Judge Denise Casper informed him that he would serve two consecutive life sentences plus five years – the sentence federal prosecutors had requested. She also awarded victims’ families $19,510,276.43 for lost wages and other losses confirmed by documentation.
In passing sentence, Judge Casper said she was influenced by the facts that Bulger had shown no remorse for his crimes, had gone on the run rather than face justice, and had kept guns and money to extend that flight. The pain and suffering his criminality and violence had caused also were considerations in the sentence, she said.
“The scope of the callousness, the depravity of the crimes is almost unfathomable,” Casper said, looking up from her notes at Bulger, who stood, staring impassively at her. “The testimony of human suffering you and your associates inflicted on others ... was agonizing to hear and painful to watch.”
The sentence was a response, she noted, to the “inhuman things that human beings did to other human beings without remorse and without regret ... crimes made all the more heinous because they were all about money, just for money.”
Finally, while explaining to Bulger and his lawyers his right to appeal his conviction and sentence, Casper concluded with: “Do you understand, sir?”
In many ways, it was a sober, somber end to a once-flamboyant criminal career that spanned decades of mayhem in his South Boston neighborhood, including murder, money laundering, extortion, and drug trafficking by Bulger’s Winter Hill gang. But it is still small solace for his victims.
Sean McGonagle was 11 years old when his father, a rival gang member, was murdered – his body unearthed years later.
“You’re a domestic terrorist fueled by greed and sickening evil,” Mr. McGonagle had told Bulger Wednesday during victim statements.
During the victims’ hearing, Theresa Bond, spoke about her father, Arthur Barrett, who was shot point-blank by Bulger.
“I just want you to know that I don’t hate you,” she told him. “I don’t have that authority. That would be judging you. I do hate the choices that you’ve made, along with your associates, but more so, I hate the choices our government has made to allow you to rule the streets and perform such horrific acts of evil.”
Others, too, asked whether the FBI had learned any lessons after years of protecting Bulger from being charged by police and prosecutors, while he was providing inside information on Boston’s Italian Mafia – his rivals.
David Wheeler, the son of another victim, said the “so called” Justice Department had helped prevent an investigation of his father’s murder. The FBI, he said, was “as responsible as the defendant sitting here” for his father’s killing by Bulger.
FBI corruption, in fact, made the prosecution's job difficult during trial, especially when jurors listened to the government’s own witnesses – Bulger’s former henchmen – testify about FBI agents helping them murder a witness or being complicit in Bulger’s planning.
When the Bulger-FBI relationship came to light in 1998, US lawmakers were aghast. The bombshell prompted the FBI to adopt new guidelines for use of informants, and congressional investigations followed.
"What happened in New England over a forty year period is, without doubt, one of the greatest failures in federal law enforcement history," the House Committee on Government Reform conceded in a 2004 report titled, "Everything Secret Degenerates: The FBI's Use of Murderers as Informants."
Even as Bulger was accused of taking part in 19 murders, his FBI handler was convicted in 2002 of racketeering and, in 2008, of second-degree murder for leaking information to Bulger that led to a murder.
Under the revised FBI guidelines, confidential informants now are scrutinized for suitability before they are approved, and agents regularly warn them about limits on their authority. Informants may engage in otherwise illegal activities only as they are justified according to unusual circumstances and only after those activities are "carefully defined" and approved by Department of Justice and FBI personnel, the Justice Department reported in 2005.
The Justice Department has also, for the past decade, required the FBI to track the number of crimes its informants commit. The FBI submits the list to senior Justice officials annually, but does not make it public.
The FBI gave informants “permission to break the law” at least 5,658 times in a single year, according to a USA Today report based on a leaked copy of the FBI’s 2011 report on informant crimes. An FBI spokeswoman told the newspaper that cases in which informants are permitted to break the law are "situational, tightly controlled," and subject to department policy.
While Bulger, who is 84, will spend the rest of his life behind bars, some question whether the FBI is today using informants in a responsible way that prevents them from co-opting law enforcement.
“For me that’s the disappointing part of this sentencing – that it didn’t make reference to the FBI’s part in this,” says Michael Coyne, associate dean at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, Mass., who has followed the trial closely. “From the victims’ standpoint, it’s got to be disappointing that the judge didn’t make any significant reference to the FBI’s complicity.”
Bulger is expected to appeal his conviction on grounds that he was granted immunity for crimes he committed while an informant. But Mr. Coyne is not worried.
“I’m sure he will pursue it on appeal,” Coyne says. “But the fact is, Bulger did not have this license to kill that he claims even if someone in the government told him that. It’s a legal fiction.”
As to the USA Today report citing thousands of crimes committed by FBI informants while working with the bureau, he is less sanguine.
“I guess that’s the question about the FBI – whether they’ve learned their lesson or not,” he says. “I’m not so sure. It’s troubling.”