The Bulger Judge's Epic Sentencing Riff

Concluding his trial, the former mobster got a public excoriation along with life imprisonment.
A courtroom sketch of Whitey Bulger and his attorneys standing before Judge Denise Casper in Boston on November 14, 2013. (Jane Flavell Collins/Associated Press)

Want to know what justice sounds like? Read the transcript of U.S. District Judge Denise Casper's remarks Thursday morning as she sentenced notorious crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger to two life sentences, plus five years, for his lifetime of murder and mayhem. The transcript is only 19 pages long. Just read it. Read it now.

There are only really two ways it ends for gangsters like Bulger. Either someone mercilessly does unto them what they have mercilessly done unto others—and they get a bullet in the head. Or they end up in front of a judge, handcuffed, being asked to rise and listen instead of getting to talk, before they are sent away for the rest of their natural lives.

Bulger's attorneys promise an appeal here, a fruitless exercise that will waste time and money, but let's be clear about what has just happened: After today, the world won't ever see Bulger alive again. And what did he hear, this most famous son of South Boston, this bright man gone bad, before he left? The last public words that ever will be uttered to his face. This, from Judge Casper:

Much ink has been spilled about you, Mr. Bulger, your impact on the city, on South Boston in particular, your flight, and this trial. I imagine in the wake of this judgment and the close of this criminal case that there will be much more ink written about you, some of which you may solicit and some of which you won't. You have over time and in certain quarters become a face of this city. That is regrettable.

You and others may be deluded into thinking that you represent this city, but you, sir, do not represent this city. This year, 2013, with all that's happened in this city, the City of Boston, both tragic and triumphant, you and the horrible things that were recounted by your cohorts during the course of this trial do not and should not represent this city.

I wonder today if Bulger, in the end, wouldn't have chosen to take that bullet to the head rather than hear a judge describe the chasm that exists today between the legacy he nurtured for all those decades and the city he leaves behind. Sure, they still may talk about James "Whitey" Bulger a hundred years from now in Boston. But if they do, they'll have to talk about what happened today in a hall of justice.

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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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