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.

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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, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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