Disgraced former FBI agent John Morris grew emotional on the stand in the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger today as he looked at the family of one of the gangster’s alleged murder victims and apologized for what he has acknowledged could have been his “indirect” role in the killing.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t pray that God gives you blessing and comfort for the pain,” Morris said to the Donahue family, seated in the front row.
“I do want to express my sincere apology for things I did, and I didn’t do,” he said. “I do not ask for forgiveness — that’s too much. But I do acknowledge it publicly.”
Michael Donahue’s widow, Patricia, sat in the front row of the courtroom, looking shaken. Her son Michael had his arm around her shoulders. Her two other sons, Shawn and Tom, sat behind them.
The elder Michael Donahue was an innocent bystander who was giving Bulger associate Brian Halloran a ride home in 1982 when Bulger allegedly sprayed their car with bullets, killing them both. Morris acknowledged that he had passed along the information that apparently triggered the attack: that Halloran was cooperating with authorities investigating a murder in which Bulger allegedly played a role.
Patricia Donahue said she believed Morris was sincere in his apology.
“I think he does live with a lot of guilt, and that’s his punishment,” Donahue said. But she also said she only believed Morris apologized because Brennan “put him on the spot.” She said it marked the first time anyone in the FBI had ever apologized to her for her husband’s slaying.
“I don’t forgive it,” she said. “Their ‘sorries’ come too late.”
In other dramatic testimony today, the defense suggested during cross-examination that Morris had asked Bulger to kill his wife while he was in the middle of a divorce. Morris vehemently denied it.
“Did you ask Mr. Bulger to do something about your wife?” defense attorney Henry Brennan asked.
“Absolutely not,” Morris said.
“Do you remember Mr. Bulger telling you he’d have nothing to do with it?”
“Absolutely not,” Morris said. “There was no such conversation.”
Donahue and Halloran were allegedly killed after Bulger learned from his corrupt FBI handler, John J. Connolly Jr., that Halloran had begun cooperating with authorities investigating a murder in Oklahoma in which Bulger was allegedly involved.
Morris, a supervisor in the FBI at the time investigating organized crime, acknowledged that he learned from two agents that Halloran was cooperating, and they asked him if Halloran was trustworthy. He said he was not.
He said he then passed the information about Halloran’s cooperation along to Connolly in a conversation, later realizing it could ultimately get back to Bulger.
“It was spontaneous. It just happened, and I wish it hadn’t,” he said.
But Bulger’s lawyer, Henry Brennan, argued, “You knew if the information got out, you knew that could lead to danger.”
“You knew when you were giving Mr. Connolly this information, you knew you were signing Mr. Halloran’s death warrant,” Brennan said.
Morris denied the suggestion.
The former FBI agent, now 68, retired in 1995, the same year Bulger and Flemmi were first indicted. He is testifying for the third day that Bulger was an informant who was allowed to carry out crimes while being protected by the FBI. He also acknowledged that he received gifts and $7,000 in cash from Bulger. He says he regrets his corruption. He has been testifying under an agreement that gives him immunity from prosecution for his crimes.
Bulger’s lawyers argue that Bulger was not an informant and was actually paying corrupt agents for information. The defense suggested in the cross-examination of Morris that Connolly was fabricating information and putting it in Bulger’s file, to make it look like the gangster was providing information.
Morris has acknowledged that FBI agents were encouraged at the time to cultivate high-level informants to glean information about the Mafia.
Bulger, 83, faces a sweeping federal racketeering indictment charging him, among other things, with playing a role in 19 murders during his decades-long reign of terror in Boston’s underworld. His legend grew when he eluded a worldwide manhunt for 16 years before his capture in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011.
During Bulger’s criminal rise, his brother, William M. Bulger, ascended himself to become one of the most powerful politicians in the state as president of the state Senate. The James Bulger saga has inspired numerous books, TV shows, and movies.
Also today, US District Court Judge Denise Casper denied a defense request that they be allowed to comment on the evidence and witnesses to reporters, a request Bulger’s lawyers argued was needed to fully defend him since Bulger is subject of harsh attacks in the media by relatives of the people he allegedly killed.
“Even as counsel may have a duty to respond to unfavorable coverage in the media prior to jury selection to ensure that the jury who is seated is impartial and not tainted by coverage, the need to do so after the jury is seated is greatly lessened,’’ Casper wrote.
She added, “the need for effective assistance of counsel at this juncture of the case is in the courtroom and not the courthouse steps. There is nothing about adherence to [a federal court rule banning out-of-court comments] that prevents counsel from doing what they have been doing since the start of trial — defending Bulger before the jury seated in this case.’’
Also today, jurors heard from Joseph E. Tower, 59, of Florida, who in the 1980s had been a member of a band who played at local clubs, including Triple O’s in South Boston, Bulger’s home base.
Tower, a South Boston native, was also a drug dealer at the time, and he testified that he hired James “Whitey” Bulger’s crew to protect his enterprise from other criminals who were ripping off drug dealers.
Tower told jurors that he met with Bulger directly and that Bulger assigned one of his cohorts, Billy Shea, to partner with Tower and protect the business.
“You will not be bothered,” Bulger allegedly told him.
In exchange, they made regular payments worth thousands of dollars to Bulger.
In testimony that drew a laugh from Bulger, Tower said he came to learn of Bulger’s worth when Tower’s brother had a problem with outsiders who owed him money and essentially kidnapped him, threatening more violence.
Tower contacted Bulger, and soon thereafter his brother was released.
“That’s the kind of protection you were looking for when you aligned yourself with Mr. Bulger?” Assistant US Attorney Brian Kelly asked.
Tower agreed that it was.
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.