Did you really think that Whitey Bulger was going to sit there in the courthouse named after his old neighbor Joe Moakley and merely take notes on a yellow legal pad while federal prosecutors painted him as a killer of women, an enabler of drug dealers, and, egads, worst of all, a rat?
It was always in the cards that Whitey Bulger was going to take the stand in his own defense. His lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., has been saying as much for much of the last year, making it official with Monday’s announcement.
The only surprise is that anybody’s surprised. Whitey may be venal, but he ain’t stupid. What’s he got to lose? This is the last dance. He has one shot to counter the prevailing image that took hold while he and Cathy Greig spent what Judge Doug Woodlock deliciously called “16 years of extended banality” on the run.
The conventional wisdom is that Whitey is tilting at windmills when he tries to claim that the Justice Department and the FBI gave him immunity to engage in all sorts of crimes, including murder.
But why wouldn’t Whitey think that? The FBI did — in fact, if not in law — give him the OK. The FBI did more than look the other way when, during a 15-month period in 1981 and 1982, Whitey was implicated in the murders of Roger Wheeler in Oklahoma, Brian Halloran and Michael Donahue on the Southie waterfront, and John Callahan in Miami. Agents and supervisors, in Boston and headquarters in Washington, engaged in such egregious acts of denial and coverup that Whitey would have had to have been a fool to conclude anything but that the FBI had his back, and that the Justice Department had the FBI’s.
Whitey’s FBI handler, John Connolly, who grew up in the same housing project in South Boston as the Bulgers, and his corrupt supervisor, John Morris, put targets on some of Whitey’s victims precisely because they posed a risk of exposing the FBI’s relationship with Whitey. Whitey knew about as much about the Mafia as the baristas at Café Pompeii in the North End. But once Connolly cynically included Whitey as one of the confidential informants to get court authorization to bug Jerry Angiulo’s office on Prince Street, the FBI and the Justice Department were too invested in keeping Whitey out of jail to let him get jammed up for something as mundane as murder. Even if the victim was a legitimate businessman like Roger Wheeler or an innocent man like Mike Donahue or a defenseless woman like Debbie Davis or Debbie Hussey.
Whitey will insist he didn’t strangle Davis while her jilted boyfriend and Whitey’s partner in crime Steve Flemmi looked on in 1981. And he will deny that same scenario played out four years later when it was the other Debbie, Flemmi’s stepdaughter Debbie Hussey. In the case of Davis, it is mostly his word against Flemmi’s. But Whitey’s got a real problem when it comes to Hussey. It’s not just Flemmi’s word; it’s Kevin Weeks’s word. Weeks, Whitey’s protégé, has testified repeatedly that he was inside the house on East Third Street and watched as Whitey wrapped his legs around Hussey’s torso and his hands around her neck. Weeks had no motive to throw Whitey into a murder, and plenty of incentive to just dummy up. But he didn’t. He told the truth.
The real Kafka stuff will be when Whitey gets up there and claims he was working for the FBI, but wasn’t really an informant. It’s going to be like watching his old pal Johnny Martorano down in Miami a few years ago, giving up Whitey and Connolly while insisting that he wasn’t a rat because you can’t rat on a rat. Priceless.
Let’s, just for argument’s sake, assume that the jury assembled to hear Whitey’s case consists of a bunch of rubes who fell off a turnip truck and they fall for Whitey’s story. Let’s assume Whitey turns in a performance far more nuanced than Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in “The Departed” and he is acquitted of the racketeering charges here in Boston. Well, that would be just fine with some fine folks in Tulsa, Okla., and Miami, who will have to arm wrestle each other for the chance of strapping Whitey to a gurney equipped with IV tubes.
Whitey’s trial is going to be great theater. He always thought he was the smartest guy in the room, and he’ll try his best to do the same in a courtroom. But the idea that he is going to provide a legitimate, corroborated alternative narrative to crimes that have been subjected to decades of the most intense legal scrutiny is laughable. He can throw anybody he wants under the bus. Who’d believe him? Next March can’t come soon enough.
The biggest surprise is not that Whitey will testify in some vainglorious attempt to claw back what he in his twisted mind considers honor. The biggest surprise, to this day, is that John Connolly remains the only FBI agent to face criminal charges for having created, maintained, and protected the crime wave known as Whitey Bulger.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeCullen.