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EDITORIAL

A murderer who was murdered still deserves justice

Federal officials owe the public answers about Whitey Bulger’s killing in prison.

Surveillance video from 1980 of the Lancaster Street Garage in the North End showing Whitey Bulger (left) and alleged gang associate George Kaufman.US Attorney's Office

It’s time for the Bureau of Prisons and the Justice Department to close the book on the James “Whitey” Bulger case. That is, determine who murdered him and bring charges against those responsible.

Bulger was killed, evidently by fellow inmates, less than 12 hours after his arrival at a federal prison in Hazelton, W.Va. He was found dead in his cell on Oct. 30, 2018, his face bludgeoned beyond recognition. Yet as of today, no charges have been filed and his death remains under investigation.

Bulger was a cruel and notorious gangster, who displayed no mercy toward his own victims during a life of heinous crime. After years on the run, he was caught, returned to Massachusetts, and ultimately convicted of crimes including racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, money laundering, firearm offenses, and 11 murders. For that, he was given two consecutive life sentences plus five years. Some, no doubt, believe his own violent end represents justice. But in a supposedly civilized society, he deserves justice from the justice system, and the government owes the public answers about why such an act of brutality happened under its watch. That means there should be accountability for his death.

It’s not like US Bureau of Prisons officials have no idea who killed Bulger. But getting to the bottom of the killing, and the incomprehensible decisions by federal officials that led up to it, does not seem to be a high priority for the bureau.

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Four inmates were removed from the general prison population shortly after Bulger’s death and kept in solitary confinement. Two with ties to Massachusetts have been described as suspects — Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a Mafia hit man from West Springfield, and Paul J. DeCologero, who was part of a Mafia-aligned group in the Boston area. The family of Geas is calling for law enforcement officials to either indict Geas or move him back to the general population. Speaking to Fox News, Geas’s lawyer, Daniel Kelly, said he and Geas have filed regular requests for him to be transferred or given some explanation as to why he’s there. “They’ve told us to file Freedom of Information Acts. We’ve done that. So they’ve kind of stonewalled us on essentially everything regarding his status,” Kelly told Fox News.

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Fotios "Freddy" Geas, left, appears for a court proceeding in 2009 in his defense in the Al Bruno murder case, in Springfield, Mass. Right, Paul J. DeCologero.Don Treeger /The Republican via AP; Facebook

The problem is that, in investigating Bulger’s death, law enforcement officials are also investigating themselves — or should be. According to reporting by the Globe’s Shelley Murphy and Kevin Cullen, Bulger’s medical classification was suddenly and inexplicably changed to suggest his health had improved, leading to his transfer from a federal prison in Florida to the one in West Virginia. Why was Bulger, then a frail 89-year-old who used a wheelchair, moved? A Bureau of Prisons official told the Globe the Florida prison considered Bulger a nuisance and wanted to get rid of him.

And, when he was transferred, why was Bulger placed in the prison’s general population? It included several organized crime figures from Massachusetts who would have known Bulger and had reason to hurt him. After all, he had been publicly identified as a longtime FBI informant, or “rat,” who provided information against local gangsters, making him a key target for revenge.

A civil rights lawsuit filed last November by Bulger’s family against Bureau of Prisons employees accuses them of causing his murder. The suit, filed in federal court in West Virginia, described Bulger as “perhaps the most infamous and well-known inmate” to be incarcerated in a federal prison since Al Capone and alleged he was “subjected to a risk of certain death or serious bodily injury by the intentional or deliberately indifferent actions” of prison officials.

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The suit says the actions of prison officials “are shocking to the conscience of civilized persons and intolerable in a society governed by laws and considerations of due process.”

Bulger’s crimes can be described that way as well. Yet, once he was convicted and sent to prison, the government became responsible for his life, as it is for the lives of all inmates. That makes the government responsible for their physical safety and humane treatment — and for any harm that comes to them during their confinement. Bulger’s notoriety has trained a spotlight on his killing, but he is far from the only victim of violence in state and federal penal institutions. Indeed, 2018 recorded the highest rate of homicides of prisoners since 2001.

The complaint filed by Bulger’s family notes that he was the subject of more than a dozen books, as well as movies and television shows. It’s time to bring closure to the Bulger story. The final chapter includes accountability for his death.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.