As his trial neared a close, James “Whitey” Bulger lashed out at the court. “I didn’t get a fair trial,” proclaimed the 83-year-old gangster, explaining his decision not to testify in his own defense, “and this is a sham.”
On the contrary: If one thing has become clear over the course of Bulger’s trial, which ended Monday with convictions on most of the charges, it’s that the judges, lawyers, and jury involved in the case gave Bulger a scrupulously fair trial, which should help give the proceedings the legitimacy and finality that his victims deserve.
The jury spent nearly a full week deliberating, sifting through the voluminous evidence offered in the case. To many observers’ surprise, they did not convict on every count; Bulger was held responsible for only 11 of the 19 murders of which he was accused.
That was a disappointment to some families, but it speaks to the conscientious job the jury did, capping a trial whose prime actors took pains not to cut any corners. Early on, a federal appeals court panel removed the judge initially assigned to the case, Richard G. Stearns, out of concerns over his impartiality. That move sent a valuable message that the system was bending over backward to treat Bulger fairly. The judge who replaced Stearns, Denise Casper, then did an admirable job keeping the trial on track.
Jurors heard from a parade of witnesses, including some old warhorses of Boston’s criminal underworld like John Martorano and Stephen Flemmi. Their testimony, though often sickening, provided a clear window into Bulger’s world.
The defense lawyers also deserve some praise for taking on a thankless job. They battled tenaciously for their client, ensuring that his legal right to a fair trial was upheld. Nobody can say that Bulger wasn’t ably defended. And Bulger, for all his braggadocio, also could have testified in his own defense. He did not.
Though few in Boston doubted Bulger’s guilt, criminal trials serve a broader public purpose, too. Done right, they establish a clear public record and provide some measure of closure for the victims — who in this case include much of the city of Boston. In that respect, the trial of Whitey Bulger was a success.