In the end, the jury was able to tune out the noise, to distinguish between proof and emotion, between corroboration and assertion. Jurors gave U.S. District Court Judge Denise J. Casper enough guilty verdicts to send James “Whitey” Bulger to prison for life for murder and racketeering. That they could not all agree whether the South Boston mobster had choked the life out of Debra Davis, a young woman whose murder had come to symbolize the monstrousness of his crimes, is no travesty. It’s a vindication of the criminal justice system.
Trials are not about symbolism; they are about evidence. Jurors were understandably unsure whether Bulger or his convicted-murderer-partner, Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi, strangled the 26-year-old Davis, whose body was unearthed from a makeshift grave on the banks of the Neponset River years after her murder. Both mobsters had motive and, according to Flemmi’s own testimony, only he and Bulger were in that Third Street basement in Southie when Davis breathed her last.
Jurors, who prosecutors had asked throughout this two-month trial to take the word of witnesses they had called pathological liars in other courtrooms, could not decide whether, this time, Flemmi was telling the truth. It was enough doubt for the jury to reasonably render a verdict of “no finding” if not “not guilty.”
The trial marks the end to both an ugly chapter in this city’s organized crime history and a shameful period of corruption in the Boston office of the FBI, which for years facilitated Bulger’s crimes and protected his criminal enterprise.
While that period, by all accounts, is over, the Bulger case raises other disturbing questions that U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz dismissed much too cavalierly on Monday. The decision by prosecutors to offer generous plea deals to serial killers in this case was as troubling as the FBI’s abuse of the informant system during Bulger’s reign of terror in Boston. Bulger associate John Martorano served just 12 years in prison, though he admitted participating in 20 murders. Kevin Weeks, who was a surrogate son to Bulger for two decades, led law enforcement to some of the makeshift graves he dug for many of Whitey’s victims. Weeks served only five years in prison after pleading guilty to being an accessory to five murders.
“One of the toughest things we have to do as prosecutors is make deals like that,” Ortiz said of criticism those plea bargains. “The reality is this is a tough business. If we weren’t able to make those deals,” she said, those bodies would not have been found and as strong a case against Bulger could not have been made. “Is it a perfect system? It isn’t.”
No it isn’t. Federal plea bargaining practices deserve the same level of scrutiny that the use of confidential informants received in the wake of revelations about the FBI’s corrupt practice of shielding Bulger and his gang of murderers and drug dealers from prosecution in exchange for information against the Italian mob in Boston.
“The end justifies the means” is as lame a justification for one practice as the other. Before the public preoccupation with all things Bulger passes, the Massachusetts Congressional delegation might suggest the topic as a worthy one for exploration on Capitol Hill.
In the interim, we can dismantle the microphones outside the J. Joseph Moakley Courthouse and leave the families of the victims of the Winter Hill gang in peace. It has been a long summer for all of them.
One, Tommy Donahue, was rightly pleased that the murder of his father, Michael Donahue, was officially solved with a guilty verdict against Whitey Bulger. But he was wrong to insist that “no finding” in the death of Debra Davis meant that her family “got robbed.” To the contrary, justice got served.