Why the Bulger Trial Is the Trial of the Century

An 83-year-old near-mythical mob boss, an alleged killer long protected by the law, against a handful of brave witnesses. Where is the national media coverage?


Left: Whitey Bulger; right: defense attorney J.W. Carney on the first day of Bulger's trial, June 12, 2013. (Reuters)

In a perfect world, and by that I mean a world in which truly extraordinary moments in the annals of law are laid bare for all to see, you and I and everyone else on this planet would be able over the next few months to watch the murder, extortion, and racketeering trial of James "Whitey" Bulger unfold live at Boston's sparklingly newish federal courthouse*. Bulger is 83 years old, was on the run for decades, and was finally found by the cops in 2011 with stacks of cash hidden in the walls of his California apartment. Forgive me for saying so, but he's probably got chunks of people like Jodi Arias and George Zimmerman in his stool.

Because of who he is, because of how long he has been so, because of what he is accused of doing and what is alleged to have been done for him, Bulger is a transcendent figure in criminal justice. A near-mythical mob boss. An alleged killer who was long protected by the law (which probably explains why he is still alive into his eighties). The guy Jack Nicholson played in The Departed. A guy who has been accused, at one time or another over the past 60 years, of virtually every crime you can think of, and probably a few you can't. If I had a choice of assignments this summer -- and I don't -- I would cover his coming trial like a rug covers a floor. It is the trial not just of this century but of the last one, too.

In a perfect world, by that I mean a world where cameras were permitted into the nation's trial courts, the real "people's courts," we would be able to watch how federal prosecutors make their case against the aged king of the "Winter Hill" gang and how his aggressive lawyers respond with allegations of their own about the way in which law enforcement officials used Bulger for their own devices. We would be able to see the sweat and the furrows on the brows of the brave witnesses who will testify against this dangerous man (who spent most of the 1950s in prison) and then judge for ourselves how jurors in the case, as wretched a civic assignment as any I can think of, respond to the enormous societal pressures they will face.

The Bulger case isn't just a "test of the evidence," as trial judges like to tell jurors before a trial begins. It is a test of the criminal justice system itself, in Massachusetts in particular, a venue where things historically have rarely been all they seem. Will a jury of Bulger's peers, people who have read about him and his grim exploits for decades, be able to separate the man from the myth? And how will the defendant himself behave in what is likely to be his final public act? "You know it's gotta be killing Whitey Bulger that his trial won't be televised," The Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen wrote a few days ago. "He's got an ego bigger than the deep blue sea. He'd like nothing better than to see his last stand preserved for posterity on film."

In a perfect world, and by that I mean a world in which national media coverage of the law is not dominated by the whims and caprices of people like Nancy Grace, the American people would be saturated over the next few months with the cast of characters who will animate the Bulger case, the cops and informants, the bureaucrats and the victims, the wise guys and not-so-wise guys, whose stories, credible or not, will shape whatever is left of the rest of Bulger's remarkable life. The Bulger story is big and long enough to fill its own five books of gospel. It would make a great made-for-television spectacle, finally a worthy one, if one there were even just a few minutes each day of video from it.

How could it not be so? The trial touches upon some of the very cornerstones of the concept of law and order. How bad is the bad guy? How crooked are the police? How willing were they to sacrifice innocent victims? How does a gangster work for so long between the cracks of crime and punishment? Little wonder, then, that so many local and regional news outlets are so eager to cover it. Good for them. There are journalists out there who have devoted the better part of their professional careers to covering the Bulger story. It's been a part of their beat for as long as they have had a beat. Can you think of anyone else in American history who lammed it until he was 80? Judge Crater never came home, did he.

They know all this in Massachusetts, of course. They've demonstrated for nearly 400 years, in fact, that they know a good story when they see one (in a recent poll, 68 percent said they were interested in the trial). Whatever he is, and whatever else he becomes over the next few months under the crucible, James "Whitey" Bulger has been a good story since the early days of the Eisenhower Administration. As a journalist, as a lawyer, and as a person fascinated by history, I lament every day that our federal courts are not open to cameras. But today, as United States v. Bulger finally comes to pass after decades of false starts and tantalizing previews, I lament that void especially so.

*Named after former Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Moakley who, naturally enough, was both a neighbor and contemporary of Bulger.