For James 'Whitey' Bulger, a Lifetime of Bad Karma Comes Back Around

This is the way it almost always ends for a mob boss.
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A courtroom sketch of James "Whitey" Bulger and his girlfriend in 2011. (Bill Robles/Reuters)

So it ends for James "Whitey" Bulger the way it almost always ends for a mob boss. Not in a hail of gunfire, although that still happens. Not on a quiet Italian street, even though Hollywood may script it that way. Not even with a premature fade to black in a Jersey diner. But rather in a sterile courtroom, with a long verdict form, a cat-fight over the meaning of "predicate acts," a post-lunch verdict, and a lifetime of bad karma, in the form of one despicable witness after another, in the form of one honorable juror after another, parading in front of a nasty old man as he sits in the dock.

The federal jury that spent five weeks immersing itself in the horrors of South Boston gang life -- violence that continues to this very day -- took five days to convict Bulger of the heart of the case against him. In law or fact it could hardly have been otherwise. And since he's 83 years old it hardly matters that the feds didn't get a clean sweep. He's been convicted of more than enough to generate a life sentence and he'll likely get no sympathy from his trial judge who soon will sentence him. You think U.S. District Judge Denise Caspar was tough on him during trial? Wait until now.

So we are witnessing the last public acts of a man who remained infamous for so long by staying private when so many were looking so hard to find him. The only open question now is whether Bulger will exercise his right to allocution at sentencing-- whether he will stand up in court, without fear of cross examination, and make a statement. Just imagine what he could possibly say, from the vantage point of a half century of crime, unshackled from the restraints of the presumption of innocence, were he inclined to do so. It's another reason to lament the lack of cameras in our federal courts.

Before he goes away to die in prison, let's all give Bulger credit for at least this much-- at least he didn't contribute to the destruction of his own mythology by testifying in his own defense. At least he didn't raise his right hand and swear an oath and turn to the jury and try to defend his grim life by lashing out at all those, in and out of uniform, who enabled its violence for over half a century. Here was a rat who ratted out everyone but himself, a man whose whole adult life was one vast criminal enterprise. He leaves the way he entered: snarling and unrepentant.

Like he was during trial when his confederate, Stephen Flemmi, testified against him as a government informant. "Motherfucker," Flemmi said to Bulger as the jury was leaving the courtroom one day. "Go Fuck yourself," Bulger responded. Or when Kevin Weeks, another informant, another former member of Bulger's gang, testified against him. "You suck," Bulger shouted at Weeks. "Fuck you, okay?" Weeks responded. "Fuck you, too," Bulger said. These types of exchanges, which mortify judges, are precisely what America expects from its mobsters. Bulger is going away forever-- and he's going away mad.

Or like he was two weeks ago, when he called his trial "a sham" and told his judge: "I feel that I've been choked off from having an opportunity to give an adequate defense." That's true, of course. The enabling relationships between Bulger and the officials sworn to apprehend him is one of the worst chapters in modern law enforcement history. And Bulger's lawyers, to their credit, hammered away at this angle of the story -- an angle, like most aspects of official misconduct, that federal judges tend not to want to try in their courtrooms. What else could they argue? What else could they say?

"Whitey Bulger's Last Stand" is how the Christian Science Monitor (another Massachusetts institution, by the way) aptly put it earlier this month. But in the end it wasn't much of a stand at all. Monday's convictions on all those charges tell us Bulger's jurors didn't buy his "license to kill" defense or, if they did, they weren't of a mind to acquit him anyway. And why would they? Even to a jury encumbered by lengthy instructions from the judge, two wrongs don't make a right-- the federal government's inexplicable dance with a murderer doesn't absolve the murderer of his crimes. 

Besides,Bulger hardly had call to complain that he was duped by the feds or that Judge Caspar unfairly precluded the jury from hearing more of his conspiracy theories about the Justice Department. America loves to put its criminals on trial. It hates to put its government on trial. Bulger should have seen that coming all along. A murderer with immunity who is not an informant? A double-crosser who gets double-crossed? There may be honor among thieves. But there's no accounting for wisdom. Bulger was doomed from the moment the police captured him in his California apartment with all that cash hidden in the walls.

James "Whitey" Bulger played the criminal game for generations, played it better than most, played it as well as anyone in the last 50 years, played it for so long that he surely knew how it would all turn out. Will he speak at his sentencing in a way that gives comfort to all those whose lives he cruelly touched? Don't bet on it. He's far more likely to go down true to his career, to his horrific choices and to his conscience. That's surely no consolation to the family and friends of his victims who showed up in court every day. But of course that was the whole point of this remarkable life of crime.

Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared at the end of last week. It was updated to reflect the verdict.


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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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