JEFFREY BROWN: Now: a reputed mobster’s trial replete with threats, profanity, and courtroom drama winds down in Boston.
Margaret Warner has that.
MARGARET WARNER: Both sides made their closing arguments today in the eight-week-long murder and racketeering trial of Whitey Bulger, the notorious chief of an Irish mafia, the Winter Hill Gang, active in South Boston in the 1970s and ’80s.
Bulger fled Boston in 1994 after being tipped off he was about to be indicted, living underground until his arrest by the FBI in California in 2011. Jurors have heard testimony from more than 70 witnesses related to 33 charges of murder, extortion, money laundering, and illegal weapons possession.
Columnist Kevin Cullen, who co- wrote the book “Whitey Bulger,” has been following on the story for The Boston Globe, and joins us now.
And, Kevin, welcome back to the program.
KEVIN CULLEN, The Boston Globe: Thanks, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: So, first of all, give us a feel for what it was like in the courtroom today after what has been eight weeks of really gruesome testimony, as the case nears — is entering this final phase.
KEVIN CULLEN: Well, one thing I think is that people walked out of court today tired, because the court had been running basically from 9:00 to 1:00 every day.
And we didn’t get out of there until about quarter of 5:00 because the closings went on very long. And as — I was actually just playing with the top of my column for tomorrow’s Boston Globe, and I said if you begin with the premise that all closing arguments are theater, this was much more like Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” than like Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” because the characters weren’t shouting at each other as much as circling each other and trying to outdo each other.
And the prosecution…
KEVIN CULLEN: I’m sorry.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, tell us about the prosecution. What was the nub of their case? I know they had nearly three hours to make it. And what was the defense sort of counterargument? Because I gather the defendant has admitted he has committed many of these crimes.
KEVIN CULLEN: Correct.
The prosecution had so much to lay out there that they actually went over those three hours. They went about three-and-a-half. And it was a — I guess the best way to — it was a workmanlike performance by Fred Wyshak. It was a — sort of a more or less straightforward recitation.
And when you sit there and listen to it, you realize that they are assembling what would be described as a mountain of evidence against Whitey Bulger. He talked about — he went through each of the 32 counts of the indictment. And 19 of those were for murders.
And so he went through who was murdered, why they were murdered, if in fact they knew why they were murdered, and how Bulger played a role, whether it was hands-on as a killer, whether he was driving what they call the crash car, which is the backup car in a hit, so you could crash into anybody that might get in the way of the assassination team, whether he was driving the car when somebody killed somebody.
And it was gruesome to listen to, to be frank. And then when the government was done presenting its case, Hank Brennan and then Jay Carney as the defense counsel got up and gave their recitation.
And I think, Margaret, what was noticeable about the defense is that they never basically said anything about the direct charges against Whitey Bulger. They put the government on trial. They were basically saying, don’t look at my client. Look at the government. Look at the FBI. Look at the Justice Department that enabled him.
And so there was, I guess — what a government person would say, they were trying to engage in jury nullification or to encourage the jury to engage in jury nullification. Both defense lawyers, when they finished up with their summations, basically said, acquit my client. If you want to send a message to the government that was corrupt and protected this guy and helped get people killed, acquit my client.
But they didn’t say that. They basically said, you can send a message to the government. It was left unsaid. What I found amusing about that is so much of what we have been hearing in testimony is that so much of the things that the government passed on to Whitey Bulger wasn’t explicit. It was wink, wink, nod, nod.
And as Steve Flemmi, his partner in crime, said, if you tell us information about people and we kill one guy, and then you tell us information about another guy and we kill him, and then you tell information about a third guy and we kill him, everybody knows what’s going on.
MARGARET WARNER: And you mentioned Steve Flemmi. He was one of the three star witnesses against Bulger, gangsters who had been part of his operation, turned on him.
Does the prosecution — does the outcome of this case rest on that or on what the jurors — that is, them — the jurors believing those three men in particular? Or does it rest more on whether they think the FBI, which was in this sort of corrupt relationship with Bulger, is to be believed at all?
KEVIN CULLEN: Well, I think unless we get inside the head of the jurors, we can’t answer that question accurately.
But clearly the prosecution saying, admitting the government was wrong in these cases and the FBI agents, specifically John Connolly, who was a handler of Whitey Bulger, that he’s serving time now for actually helping Bulger kill somebody, and they’re saying, look, the guys that surrounded themselves around Bulger were bad people. They were sadistic people. They were killers. They were thugs.
And in Steve Flemmi’s case, they were quite depraved. Now, the defense is saying you can’t believe any of these guys because they’re such bums. They’re such sociopaths. They’re such evil people. And then the government gets back up there in rebuttal and says, wait a minute. It’s not about the witnesses. It’s about, who were the witnesses friends with? Who was their boss? Who did they associate with? And that’s the man sitting at the table here.
So, yes, it does come down to whether you believe — I don’t even think it’s believe the witnesses. The question is, do you believe that the witnesses really were in cahoots with Whitey Bulger? And I have to be honest. Sitting where I sat, the evidence was pretty overwhelming.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Kevin Cullen of The Boston Globe, thank you. And I’m sure we will be back to you as this case goes to the jury. Thanks.
KEVIN CULLEN: Thanks.