A federal judge has dismissed a wrongful death suit filed by the family of notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, ruling that the US Bureau of Prisons cannot be held liable for transferring him to a West Virginia penitentiary, where he was beaten to death by fellow inmates shortly after his arrival in 2018.
“The BOP must provide for the protection, safekeeping, and care of inmates, but this does not guarantee a risk-free environment,” US District Judge John Preston Bailey wrote in a Jan. 12 decision dismissing the suit filed against dozens of prison officials by William Bulger Jr., Bulger’s nephew and administrator of his estate. “Decisions about how to safeguard prisoners are generally discretionary.”
The judge ruled that prison officials are protected from suits involving decisions they make while exercising their discretion. He denied a request by Bulger’s family to force the government to turn over evidence about the circumstances of Bulger’s controversial transfer to US Penitentiary Hazelton.
Bulger’s family released a statement Wednesday saying it remains “committed to holding the government accountable for deliberately putting him in harm’s way and so will appeal this decision to dismiss.“
The family said it is pursuing the suit “in order to force transparency from the federal government” and that the judge’s order dismissing the case before any evidence was disclosed about the circumstances of Bulger’s slaying “would only allow the government to continue its obfuscation of the facts.”
Even when using its discretion, the Bureau of Prisons “may not legally hide facts surrounding acts of violence or allow mistreatment of prisoners,” the family said.
Hank Brennan, who represented Bulger at trial and now represents his family in the civil suit, said the family and the public have been “begging for information” about his murder for more than three years and have been told “virtually nothing” about the facts and circumstances or the investigation.
“The decision by the court denying this lawsuit effectively allows the Department of Justice to once again suffocate the truth of what happened,” he said.
In the lawsuit, filed 14 months ago in federal court in West Virginia, Bulger’s family had described him as “perhaps the most infamous and well-known inmate” in 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.
The former South Boston crime boss was serving a life sentence after his 2013 conviction for killing 11 people while running a sprawling criminal enterprise from the 1970s through the 1990s.
The 89-year-old, who had been publicly identified as a longtime FBI informant who provided information against local Mafiosi, was transferred from a Florida prison to Hazelton on the night of Oct. 29, 2018, and placed in general population alongside organized crime figures from Massachusetts. Less than 12 hours later, officers found his body in his cell. He had been beaten with a lock stuffed in a sock, officials said.
Nobody has been charged with his slaying, but Fotios “Freddy” Geas, a Mafia hitman from West Springfield serving a life sentence for two gangland murders, and Paul J. DeCologero, part of a Mafia-aligned group, have been identified as suspects, according to several people familiar with the investigation.
Stacy Bishop, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office for the Northern District of West Virginia, said Wednesday that the investigation into Bulger’s murder is “still active.”
The families of many of Bulger’s victims filed wrongful death suits against him and the government, alleging officials allowed Bulger to get away with murder while working as an FBI informant. Most of those cases were dismissed, primarily on the grounds that they were filed too late.
New Hampshire Attorney William Christie, who won a $3.1 million wrongful death suit against the government on behalf of the estate of John McIntyre, who was killed by Bulger in 1984, said the cases are difficult and the law tends to protect the federal government.
“Obviously Bulger was a horrible person, but the facts as they have been reported describe a horrible death and it seems to belie common sense that a person could be left alone like that to be killed,” Christie said Wednesday. “But the law on this issue is just not good for people who are seeking relief from the federal government.”
The Globe has previously reported that Bulger spent his last months at the Florida prison in solitary confinement after a verbal confrontation with a nurse. In letters written in the months before his death, Bulger indicated he was in a wheelchair, had suffered numerous heart attacks, and was expecting to be transferred to a federal medical facility.
Instead, prison authorities changed his medical classification, indicating he required less care because his condition had markedly improved. That cleared the way for his transfer to Hazelton, which offers fewer medical services.