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‘Whitey’ Bulger Trial Stars Institutional Corruption, ‘Criminal With Scruples’

June 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Accused mob boss James 'Whitey' Bulger, 83, finally had his day in court after 16 years on the run. Bulger allegedly ran the violent Winter Hill gang in South Boston. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of extortion, racketeering and 19 murders. Gwen Ifill talks to Kevin Cullen of The Boston Globe, who was in the courtroom.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, the long-awaited trial of an alleged mob boss who once topped the FBI’s most-wanted list. It gets under way in Boston.

James “Whitey” Bulger’s day in court finally arrived, with federal prosecutors declaring he was at the center of murder and mayhem in Boston for nearly 30 years. He’s accused of extortion, racketeering and 19 murders. At the age of 83, he’s now pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Bulger allegedly ran the violent Winter Hill Gang in South Boston, and at the same time, prosecutors say, he provided the FBI with information on a rival gang. In 1994, he fled as he was about to be indicted, and managed to evade capture for 16 years.

While he was being hunted, his former FBI handler was convicted of tipping him off.

NARRATOR: This is an announcement by the FBI. Have you seen this woman?

GWEN IFILL: In 2011, agents finally tracked Bulger down through his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig, and he was arrested at this rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, Calif. His trial is expected to last three to four months.

For more, we turn to Kevin Cullen, reporter and columnist for The Boston Globe, and co-author of the book “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice.” He was in the courtroom today.

This corruption trial that we are following now, Kevin, are we talking about something that was individual, his alleged crimes, or institutional?

KEVIN CULLEN, The Boston Globe: Well, I think the corruption that’s at the heart of this, Gwen, is absolutely institutional. It’s not just one rogue agent and one corrupt supervisor. It goes much deeper than that.

And when — there was a 15-month period in 1981 to 1983 — or 1982 into 1983 — in which Whitey Bulger and his criminal partner, Steve Flemmi, were implicated in four murders. And there were discussions at the highest level at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington. And at that level, there wasn’t a decision to turn Bulger and Flemmi over to appropriate authorities. It was a decision to protect them.

And it wasn’t just a question of the FBI looking the other way. In one very specific case involving the murder of a legitimate businessman, Roger Wheeler in Oklahoma, the FBI in Boston lied to their colleagues at the FBI office in Oklahoma about the whereabouts and the alibis of Steve Flemmi and Whitey Bulger.

So the corruption at the heart of this goes to the highest levels of the FBI.

GWEN IFILL: So he was on the run for 16 years. He was found two years ago, and the trial begins today.

You were in the courtroom. Give us a sense of the scene.

KEVIN CULLEN: Well, I mean, it — obviously, it’s a pretty subdued setting. And, you know, you had three sets of spectators. They were people that were the victims of the family that were directly in back of the — what you call it, the prosecution table.

Then you had Bulger’s side, which, frankly, the only people that I saw that were close to Whitey Bulger was his brother Jackie. His politician brother, Bill Bulger, wasn’t there. And then you had the media on the other side. So there was kind of three different groups in there.

And Brian Kelly, the federal prosecutor, gave a very understated sort of, these are the facts, ma’am, Joe Friday approach to the indictment against Whitey Bulger and just spelled it out in detail. But there was one very poignant moment during Brian Kelly’s opening. Toward the end of it, he just showed — he read the names of the 19 murder victims one by one, pausing between each name while their photograph was shown on an overhead projector shown to the courtroom.

And at the end of it, Brian Kelly said, “That, ladies and gentlemen, is what this case is all about.”

GWEN IFILL: So what is the defense?

KEVIN CULLEN: The defense is actually novel, because Jay Carney, who is the lead attorney for Whitey Bulger, went in there and admitted in open court that his client was a criminal.

He said his client was an extortionist, a bookmaker. And a very big surprise to us, he admitted that his client was involved in drug dealing.

GWEN IFILL: Which he had never admitted before, right?

KEVIN CULLEN: He had never — no, no, no, no, he would never admit particularly that. That was a sore spot.

And particularly his apologists in South Boston and other places would always say that Whitey would never touch drugs, whereas the evidence was overwhelming that he made millions by shaking down drug dealers. But the evidence now is even more specific that he was involved in actual movement of cocaine.

So — but Jay Carney, his lawyer admitted to all that. So in some respects, they went in there in their opening statement and admitted to a number of predicate acts that would find him guilty of racketeering, which he is charged.

But what’s clear by the defense, what Jay Carney outlined, is Whitey Bulger is not interested in getting acquitted of everything. He’s interested in being acquitted of two very specific charges. One is that he was an informant for the FBI. Carney said he never was. But the other thing that Bulger really wants to change — he doesn’t like this part of the narrative — is the killing of the women.

Of the 19 murders, he’s charged with killing two women. And he cannot abide by that because he spent his entire criminal life creating a narrative of him and, that narrative is that he’s a good bad guy. He’s a criminal with scruples. And criminals with scruples do not murder defenseless young women.

GWEN IFILL: Four to five months you’re saying this is going to take. Why so long?

KEVIN CULLEN: Well, part of it is, they’re only going half-days. He’s 83 years old. Judge Casper, Denise Casper, who is the presiding justice at this, agreed with the defense that it would be asking an awful lot of a man that’s going to turn 84 in September to do long days.

So right now, it’s going to be four days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. And then Thursdays, there’s going to be a long day that goes to 3:30. So that alone, Gwen, would make this trial — that really pushes it past — this might have been able to be done in two-and-a-half months, but because of the accommodations they’re making for Mr. Bulger, it’s just going go a lot — you know, I think that’s actually conservative.

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

KEVIN CULLEN: I think it depends on the cross-examining. We could be doing this come the fall.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it sounds to me …

KEVIN CULLEN: This might be going on during the Harvard-Yale game.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds to me like you will be watching it fairly closely.

Kevin Cullen, thank you so much.

KEVIN CULLEN: I will be there. Thanks, Gwen.