A Florida appeals court has scheduled a hearing in February so it can decide whether the murder conviction of James “Whitey” Bulger’s longtime handler, former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr., should be overturned.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals said lawyers for Connolly, 74, and state prosecutors will each be allotted 20 minutes for arguments Feb. 12 on whether Connolly should go free on statute of limitations grounds. Each side was given until Jan. 12 to file briefs.
A Miami jury convicted Connolly in 2008 of second-degree murder for leaking information to Bulger and his sidekick, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, that prompted the gangsters to orchestrate the 1982 slaying in Florida of Boston businessman John B. Callahan.
Jurors found that Connolly warned Bulger and Flemmi, both FBI informants, that Callahan was being sought for questioning by the FBI and would probably implicate the gangsters in the 1981 murder of World Jai Alai owner Roger Wheeler.
Hitman-turned-government witness John Martorano testified at the trial that at the urging of Bulger and Flemmi, he lured Callahan to Florida and shot him to death. His body was found in the trunk of a Cadillac at Miami International Airport.
Connolly was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the murder, on top of a 10-year term he was serving for a 2002 US racketeering conviction in Boston.
In May, a three-judge Florida appeals court panel voted 2 to 1 to overturn Connolly’s conviction, ruling that there was a four-year statute of limitations on second-degree murder in Florida in 1982, unless the defendant used a gun. The court found that since Connolly was not the triggerman in Callahan’s slaying and was not charged with it until decades later — well beyond the statute of limitations — his conviction came too late.
It was undisputed at trial that Connolly was miles away, on Cape Cod, when Callahan was killed.
Prosecutors contended that Connolly’s conviction should stand because, though he did not fire the fatal shot, he was carrying his FBI weapon while meeting with Bulger and Flemmi as they plotted in Boston before Callahan’s murder.
Earlier this month, the Florida appeals court granted a request by prosecutors for an en banc hearing — which means all 10 judges sitting on the appeals court will consider Connolly’s case.
Connolly’s lawyers had argued that there were “no reasonable grounds” to justify further hearings and that he should be freed immediately.