Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Bulger Trial

The good people of Boston have had more than their share of True Crime stories of late, from the marathon bombing to the murderous tight end to, of course, the Bulger trial. Having spent 25 years in Scrodtown before moving out to the country and painting my mailbox blue, I am most interested. I'm pretty sure most of the country doesn't really know what's going on in the courtroom, so let me fill you in. People who already know the story, or think they know it, might appreciate a quick review as well.

Let me first state that the news media just love gangster nicknames. They can't say, or write, "James Bulger." They have a form of Tourette's such that they must always render it "James 'Whitey' Bulger." In fact his associates called him Jimmie. And I'm pretty much 100% certain that nobody ever addressed Stephen Flemmi as "Rifleman," but you'll never see his name in print or pronounced on air without that middle name.

Anyway . . .

In Bulger's day South Boston, which was and is indeed known as Southie, was an insular Irish enclave, virulently racist and paranoid about the maintenance of its ethnic homogeneity and dysfunctional folkways. When South Boston High was integrated by a court order, the people lined the streets to throw rocks at the school buses. Southie even had it's mini-Faubus in the person of city councillor Louise Day Hicks, who famously compared black people to a spreading stain on the fabric of the city.

During Jimmie's murderous reign over Southie, his brother William was the president of the state senate and Dictator of the Commonwealth. The Democrats had veto-proof majorities in both houses, so they would nominate weak candidates for governor and not give them any support in the general election, thereby insuring there would not be a competing powerbase in the corner office. Mitt Romney was one of the Republican figurehead governors during this era. Legislators never actually voted. Billie would stand at the podium and intone, "Comes now the question pertaining to the bill to be engrossed the clerk will read the amendment." The clerk would get out three words then Billie would say "Without objection the clerk will dispense with the reading of the amendment do I hear the ayes do I hear the nays the nays have it the amendment is not adopted." Then he would bang his gavel. There might be a few senators milling about the chamber talking with each other, but nobody ever actually said "aye" or "nay."

There was an odor of corruption around Billie but he was never caught, or at least he was never prosecuted. When he got tired of politics he got one of those figurehead Republican governors to appoint him Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, to the violent retching of the faculty. He was forced to resign when Jimmie went on the lam, and Billie was apparently in contact with him. Billie was suspected of withholding information about Jimmie's whereabouts, which if I remember correctly he never explicitly denied. Instead he made remarks to the effect that blood is thicker than water. Anyway . . .

Jimmie knows that there is no possibility he will die anywhere but in prison. In fact, his lawyers stipulated to enough facts in opening arguments to get him life. He's an old man so the Angel of Death will probably parole him in no more than five years anyway, so what's this trial all about? Why not just plead out and get it over with? Gather 'round and I shall tell ye.

Whitey Bulger (and he was known by that name to the general public) was a folk hero in Southie. They saw him as a sort of embodiment of Irish machismo and the community's transgressive identity. For one thing, he was credited with keeping drugs out of Southie.

Hah! South Boston had the worst heroin problem in the city, much worse than the black ghetto of Roxbury. This was not a secret. You could see the junkies nodding in the doorways, everybody knew enough not to park where they could break your window and steal your radio, and the ambulances were continually hauling the ODs off to Boston City Hospital. Jimmie didn't try to stop the drug trade, he controlled it. He didn't operate it, but he decided who could sell dope in Southie, he parceled out the territory, and of course he taxed it, just like he shook down the legitimate businesses. So the first thing he told his lawyers was that they had to attack the accusation that he was the local drug kingpin. In that, they have, from what I have read of the trial, failed spectacularly.

One true fact that might have further enhanced Jimmie's reputation was that he sold weapons to the Irish Republican Army. He did it for the money, of course. But this brings us to the second reason for the trial, that he wants his lawyers to trash the claim that he was an FBI informant. That has also been an epic fail. This story has long been well known and told from every angle in many books and long-form newspaper pieces. The FBI was intent on breaking up the Italian mafia, so they recruited Bulger to rat. But he wound up turning the tables and put his FBI handler on his payroll.

Bulger oversaw an operation to run machine guns, ammo and plastic explosives out to an Irish trawler on the high seas via a Gloucester swordfishing boat. (The weapons never made it to the IRA because of an informant on the receiving end.) A crewmen on the fishing boat later got drunk and spilled the beans on the operation. Unfortunately, he ended up being interrogated by Bulger's pet FBI agent, John Connolly (now in federal prison for racketeering and murder), who of course tipped off Bulger, who (of course) tortured the man to death. Connolly later tipped of Bulger that he had been indicted, leading to Jimmie Bulger's 19 years as a fugitive and Billie's fall from grace.

The last claim Bulger wants his lawyers to refute is that he murdered women. His lieutenant Flemmi testified that Bulger personally strangled Flemmi's girlfriend and stepdaughter when they became inconvenient. Flemmi could be lying about who did the actual strangling, but there can be no doubt that Bulger knew and approved.

So the trial isn't about guilt or innocence, in general. It's about Bulger's legend. And he's already lost.


Don Quixote said...

Great column! A novel is in here, for sure . . . Norman Mailer would have had a field day.

Cervantes said...

Yeah, truth is often more interesting than fiction.