As the estate of James “Whitey” Bulger prepares to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government, you can almost taste the irony.
Whitey Bulger died as a guest of the nation, beaten to death in prison as mercilessly as he tortured some of his victims. And while it was perfectly understandable, if not exactly admirable, for many people, especially the survivors of his victims, to feel he got what he deserved, seeing Bulger’s demise as some form of brutal, poetic justice should not diminish the imperative that this question be answered: Why he was in a position to be murdered in the first place?
It is frankly scandalous that Bulger’s medical classification was unilaterally changed so that he could be transferred from a prison in Florida where he was relatively safe to one in West Virginia where he plainly was not. There are people within the US Bureau of Prisons who had a hand in wink-winking and nod-nodding Bulger’s reclassification and transfer, so expecting the bureau to be completely forthcoming is not realistic. The agency is hardly a study in transparency.
One may be charitable and believe that the Justice Department, which oversees the Bureau of Prisons, will do the right thing and bring all the circumstances to light. But, historically, the Justice Department has been compromised by Bulger. Besides, Hank Brennan, Bulger’s lawyer, and Bulger’s family aren’t feeling particularly charitable at the moment, and who could blame them.
The fact that Bulger, 89 and demonstrably in declining health, was suddenly, almost miraculously, deemed medically stable enough to be transferred to a prison with a lesser standard of health care services and placed in a general population that contained a number of organized crime figures from Massachusetts, including the Mafia hitman suspected of killing him, cries out for explanation.
By filing a lawsuit and thus being able to engage in the legal discovery process that will compel the Bureau of Prisons to turn over records and communications in the case, Bulger’s lawyer and the family will conceivably be in a position to satisfy themselves that all the circumstances surrounding Bulger’s transfer from the Coleman II facility in Florida to the US Penitentiary Hazelton in West Virginia are known.
Again, the irony will be thick, the distaste strong, that someone like Whitey Bulger will be defended as a man deserving of all our core rights, including the most essential right to life, that he denied so many others. But if the agency that runs the federal prison system believes it can act as recklessly as it appears to have done in the case of a high-profile inmate like Whitey Bulger, what are the prospects for the comparative nobodies doing time for offenses that don’t come close to his level of criminal depravity?
In interviews, several people who work in the federal prison system told my colleague Shelley Murphy and me that the sort of subterfuge employed in Bulger’s transfer is common, that prisoners who are considered troublesome, like Bulger, routinely have their medical classifications improperly changed to make it administratively possible to dump them on some other facility.
If that is true, that is something that the Bureau of Prisons internal investigation needs to explore, far beyond the particulars of Bulger’s case.
Of all the ironies, none is richer nor more poignant than the prospect of any compensatory damages awarded to Bulger’s estate, in the event his estate prevails in the suit, going to the families of those he murdered. Such payments would be in accordance with a forfeiture judgment secured by prosecutors.
The Donahues of Dorchester will find themselves in the odd position of cheering on the Bulgers of South Boston, who now have something in common with the Donahues and some of Whitey Bulger’s other victims: the agony of having their loved one murdered as a result of government duplicity.
Many of Whitey Bulger’s victims were treated shabbily by the government, but the treatment of the Donahue family was especially egregious. Michael Donahue was collateral damage in the FBI’s cynical embrace of Whitey Bulger. In 1982, he made the innocent mistake of offering a ride home to an old neighborhood friend, Brian Halloran, who, unbeknownst to Donahue, had made the fatal mistake of shopping Bulger to the FBI.
Determined to protect Bulger as an informant, an FBI supervisor told Bulger’s FBI handler John Connolly about Halloran, Connolly told Bulger, and when Bulger opened fire outside a waterfront bar the bullets meant for Brian Halloran killed Michael Donahue, too, leaving Patricia Donahue a widow and her sons Michael, Shawn, and Tommy fatherless.
Like many other victims of Bulger’s violence and the FBI’s obsequiousness, the Donahues fought for justice for years. Two judges ordered the Justice Department to settle with the family, saying the FBI was responsible for Michael Donahue’s murder. But rather than allow the family to collect the $6 million initially awarded to them, the Justice Department spent untold resources appealing the judgment, before finally getting lucky in 2011 with a 2-1 decision by the US Court of Appeals that found the Donahues waited too long to file their appeal. The two judges who ruled against the Donahues actually had the temerity to suggest the family, lied to by their own government, should have read the newspapers more closely.
Patricia Donahue hopes the Bulger family gets the truth, which is a lot more than her family got all those years.
“It’s not even the money, so much as now the Bulgers will go through the same thing we did,” she said. “I hope they get some money, and I hope it goes to the victims. Then my kids can give their kids the things I couldn’t.”
Her son Tommy doubts the Bulger family will prevail and doesn’t want the money if they do.
“I don’t care anymore,” he said. “If the Bulgers get anything, give it to my mother. Getting dragged through the courts all those years, once Whitey was dead, it was over for me. I’m done. I’m just done.”Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.