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In Court, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger Reacted to Convictions ‘Like a Poker Player’

August 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the verdict in the trial of mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger.

A jury in federal court found him guilty on more than 30 counts today, including murder, racketeering and extortion, as the head of the notorious Winter Hill Gang. Bulger, now 83 years old, was convicted of 11 of 19 murders that prosecutors said he committed or helped orchestrate in Boston during the 1970s and ’80s.

He spent 16 years on the run, becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted, before he was finally captured in June 2011. During his days in Boston, Bulger also was an FBI informant, and the agency’s own dark history with the gangster became a big focus of the trial.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz acknowledged that as she praised the verdict.

CARMEN ORTIZ, U.S. Attorney, District of Massachusetts: This day of reckoning for Bulger has been a long time in coming, too long, in fact, due to his decades-long of corruption and corrupting law enforcement officials in this city.

And it was a corruption that not only allowed him to operate a violent organization in this town, but it also allowed him to slip away when honest law enforcement was closing in. I hope that the victims, the family, and many others who suffered tremendously and in some cases were actually destroyed by James Bulger’s criminal actions will take some solace in the fact that he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Bulger’s defense attorney, Jay Carney, said his client would appeal. But he noted that Bulger wasn’t convicted of other murder charges made by the prosecution.

J.W. CARNEY, attorney for Whitey Bulger: Jim Bulger was very pleased at how the trial went and even pleased by the outcome.

I don’t think he expected that nine times the jury would come back and say not guilty or not proven. It was important to him that the government corruption be exposed and important to him that people see firsthand the deals that the government was able to make with certain people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To walk us through the verdict, we’re joined once again by Kevin Cullen. He’s a columnist with The Boston Globe.

Welcome back to the NewsHour, Kevin.

First of all, tell us about the scene in the newsroom when the jury reported the verdict.

KEVIN CULLEN, The Boston Globe: Well, it was pretty obvious that the families — one thing I saw, facing them — I could see over Whitey’s shoulder.

I was in the — I actually was purposefully in the other courtroom where the camera was on Whitey, and I could see the families in back of him. And the Donahue family was obviously thrilled. The Davis family was crushed. The Leonard family was crushed, because those murders — in the Davis case, that was one of the women.

He was charged with 19 murders, Judy. The only two he really objected to were the women, because that flew in the face of his phony narrative as this gangster with scruples. And he was convicted of the murder of Deborah Hussey, who was the stepdaughter of his partner in crime, Steve Flemmi.

And the jury came back with a verdict of no finding in the killing of Debra Davis. Now, I heard his lawyer just describe that he was pleased with the findings. I would say that that is putting the best face on a very bad day for Whitey Bulger, because the jury convicted him of 11 of 19 murders.

It was pretty obvious to us in press row that the jury did a very meticulous job. And in any murder or any criminal act that he was charged with there wasn’t corroborative evidence, they didn’t convict. So in a lot of the old murders in the ’70s that involved gangland murders, when it was just John Martorano, the witness, when it was just his word, the jury said, we’re not going for that.

Any time there was anything supported, there was a corroborating witness or corroborating event, the jury convicted. He was convicted of almost all charges. So, like I said, the defense can spin it as much as they want. Whitey Bulger is going to die in prison. And the idea that he didn’t kill women, well, I’m sorry. The jury said otherwise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was his reaction when the verdicts were read?

KEVIN CULLEN: No emotion. No emotion whatsoever. I looked at his face. That’s where my eyes were, right on his face. And he showed no emotions whatsoever. He played it like a poker player.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Explain a little bit more about the difference between the murder counts that he was — of course, there were racketeering, extortion charges as well. But what were the principle differences between the counts he was found guilty on and the ones he wasn’t?

KEVIN CULLEN: Well, it comes to corroborating evidence.

As I said, if we — I went through the charges that he was — they found not proven. I only heard one not guilty. And the not guilty was on an extortion of a bookmaker named Kevin Hayes. And that was the only one I heard.

Everything I else I heard wasn’t proven. That’s a distinction. And then, obviously, in the Debra Davis killing, it was no finding. That means the jurors were split. And some thought there wasn’t enough evidence; some thought there was.

But, if you look, if you go down there and parse it, Judy, what you will see is that whenever it was just the word of John Martorano, not supported by either Kevin Weeks, a very key witness, or Steve Flemmi himself, that the jury didn’t find him guilty of those counts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were saying families of the women — the woman whose murder he wasn’t found not guilty of, they were upset.

(CROSSTALK)

KEVIN CULLEN: Well, he was upset.

Steve Davis and I actually had lunch together waiting for the verdict. And, you know, we talked about it. Steve Davis is — actually thinks that Steve Flemmi killed his sister. So in some respects, he didn’t agree with it, the way the government presented it, per se.

But, as Steve said to me, he has no doubt that Whitey Bulger and Steve Flemmi conspired to kill his sister. He has no doubt in his mind. So he was upset. He was upset by the verdict. As he said to me, at least it wasn’t a not guilty. At least it wasn’t a not proven. They said it was no finding.

That means the jurors were split on this, that some obviously believed that Bulger wasn’t present and involved in the murder, and some felt that the evidence was just too weak. It really did come down to Steve Flemmi’s word, not necessarily against Whitey, because he didn’t take the stand, but it was Steve Flemmi’s word. And the jury had sat there for three to four days listening to how much of a degenerate Steve Flemmi is.

You have to understand, Judy, the bulk of the government case were from people, they’re all admitted killers, drug dealers, and thugs. And so the jury had to parse that and go through it. From where I sit, I think they did a heck of a job. They did a really, really good job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much damage was done to the FBI by this trial, by what was — what — Bulger’s connection to the FBI?

KEVIN CULLEN: Well, this is — actually, the damage to the FBI is going on for 20-odd years now.

I was part of The Globe — The Boston Globe spotlight team that exposed Bulger as an informant in 1998. The damage began then. Nine years later, Judge Mark Wolf, one of the few heroes in this sordid tale, was able to force the FBI to admit that Bulger was their informant. And then, since that time, there has been a series of civil cases and other criminal cases.

His — John Connolly, his FBI handler, is now doing 40 years for murder in Florida. This was the end. This was the denouement. This was the end of it all, Whitey going to trial. So we have actually known this. So the damage to the FBI was done. And that’s one of the conflicts we saw, that the victims’ families didn’t like the way the government presented this case, because they believe the government was minimizing FBI and Justice Department corruption.

And that was a tactic, because the FBI didn’t want to — that was Bulger’s defense. It was like, look at — don’t pay attention to me. Pay attention to these corrupt FBI agents. As the jury saw through it, Judy, the FBI clearly enabled and protected and actually helped Whitey Bulger kill people. But, at the end of the day, it wasn’t the FBI that shot people in the head, buried them in shallow graves and removed their teeth for identification purposes. It was Whitey Bulger.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a remarkable story.

Kevin Cullen with The Boston Globe, thank you.

KEVIN CULLEN: Thank you, Judy.