BOSTON — The jury in the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger on Tuesday began deliberating whether the former Boston mob boss is guilty of murder and racketeering charges that could put him in prison for the rest of his life.
For almost two months, witnesses from the era when Bulger ruled Boston’s underworld as head of the Winter Hill gang testified about 19 murders the government says the 83-year-old defendant he committed or ordered in the 1970s and ’80s.
A sweeping 32-count indictment also charges him with drug dealing, extortion and maintaining an arsenal of guns that prosecutors described as the “tools of the trade.”
Bulger has pleaded not guilty to all charges, though his lawyers admitted on the first day of the trial that Bulger had been a drug dealer, extortionist and loan shark.
Before sending the jurors to deliberate, U.S. District Judge Denise Casper reminded them they could not consider Bulger’s decision on Friday not to testify in his own defense at a trial he called “a sham.”
“No inference of guilt or of anything else may be drawn form the fact that the defendant did not testify,” said Casper.
Twice during the trial, the judge admonished Bulger for cursing at witnesses who said he was an informant for the FBI, which ignored his crimes in return for tips about other criminal gangs. Bulger insisted he was not “a rat,” but conceded that he did pay FBI agents for information he could use.
The jury heard former gangsters, extortion victims and law enforcement officials recount the gory details of killings they said Bulger either ordered or carried out. The murders included innocent people gunned down in botched attempts to kill rivals and fellow criminals the gang killed because Bulger suspected they were talking to police.
Former mob lieutenant Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi testified that Bulger strangled two women, Flemmi’s girlfriend and step-daughter, because the mob boss feared they knew too much.
For most of the trial, Bulger, who has lost the shock of light hair that earned him the nickname “Whitey” in his youth, sat quietly at the defense table, writing on a yellow legal notepad.
Bulger fled Boston in 1994 after a tip from a corrupt FBI agent that arrest was imminent. He lived in hiding for 16 years, many of them listed on the bureau’s “Ten Most Wanted” list. Agents caught him living in a seaside Santa Monica, California, apartment in June 2011.
Black mark on FBI
During eight weeks of testimony at Boston’s waterfront federal courthouse, not far from the location of some of the murders Bulger is accused of committing, defense attorneys conceded that he was “an organized criminal.”
But they strongly disputed one claim of prosecutors that is not actually a crime. Defense attorneys insisted that Bulger had never served as an FBI informant.
Bulger’s lead attorney, J.W. Carney, said during the trial that Bulger had paid corrupt FBI agent John Connolly for information on rival gangs but never provided any tips of his own.
Carney had intended to argue that Bulger could not be convicted due to an immunity agreement reached with a now-dead federal prosecutor, but Casper quashed that prior to the start of the trial, noting that no immunity deal would allow an informant to commit murders.
Bulger’s story has long fascinated Boston. He rose from a housing project to become the city’s most feared gangster at the same time that his brother, William, rose in Massachusetts politics to became the powerful president of the State Senate.
Trading on his brother’s influence, Bulger entered into a long relationship with a corrupt FBI agent who shared his Irish ethnicity and South Boston upbringing and turned a blind eye to Bulger’s crimes in exchange for information the bureau could use against its top national target, the Italian Mafia.
Jurors heard from dozens of witnesses including three top Bulger associates: Flemmi, John “The Executioner” Martorano and Kevin Weeks. Bulger’s attorneys urged jurors not to trust these former mobsters, noting they had made plea deals to testify against their client in return for lenient sentences.
The three delivered gripping testimony, recounting stories of threatening extortion victims with machine guns; pulling teeth from the heads of murder victims to prevent police from identifying them; and burying bodies in shallow graves in the basement of a Boston home.
Jack Nicholson played a character inspired by Bulger in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Academy Award-winning film “The Departed.”