James “Whitey” Bulger will die in custody. Even the former South Boston crime boss himself seems to realize that; in a letter to a friend, reported in Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy’s new biography, he acknowledged he has little hope of ever being a free man again. Even if Bulger somehow managed to beat the federal murder and racketeering case against him, additional murder charges are waiting in two states.
Yet the way the final chapter of Bulger’s criminal career unfolds still matters. For the families of his victims, a trial offers an opportunity for some closure. For the justice system itself, which was tainted for so long by its corrupt relationship with Bulger, the trial provides an opportunity to achieve a needed measure of redemption.
In that context, the decision on Thursday by a three-judge panel to remove Judge Richard G. Stearns from the case was the right call. Stearns was the chief of the US attorney’s criminal division in the 1980s, the same time the FBI was in cahoots with Bulger. Stearns himself was not involved in the handling of Bulger then, and said he could conduct the trial fairly now. There is no evidence to suggest that Stearns would be anything other than a fair judge. Nonetheless, the three-judge panel found that Stearns’s professional background could create a reasonable perception that he lacked impartiality.
Amid the entire tangled history of the Bulger case, perceptions matter. This prosecution and trial must be beyond reproach. Families are understandably worried that the removal of Stearns from the case could lead to further delay in bringing the 83-year-old gangster to trial. Certainly, the new judge, Denise J. Casper, should make every effort to proceed quickly. But a swift verdict must not be the government’s only goal.