Critics Say Mob Boss's Trial Has Been A Disappointment

A federal judge in Boston is about to sentence former mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, who was convicted in August of participating in 11 murders while running a massive criminal enterprise for decades. There is little suspense around sentencing; even the minimum for the most minor of the charges would be enough to keep the now-84-year-old Bulger behind bars for the rest of his life. It's all left some questioning whether the whole "big show," as the former mob boss has called his months-long trial, was worth all the time and money.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The sentencing hearing of convicted mobster James Whitey Bulger began in federal court in Boston today. Bulger was convicted in August of taking part in 11 murders while running a massive criminal enterprise going back to the 1970s. Sentencing takes place tomorrow, but no matter what jail time he gets, it's pretty clear that the 84-year-old Bulger will spend the rest of his life in prison.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, it is an anti-climactic end to a long, expensive trial that has left many frustrated by what it didn't accomplish.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Bulger himself called it the big show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

SMITH: Every day, he was rushed to and from court by a caravan of police boosting the cost of trial and, many victims feared, Bulger's ego.

STEVE DAVIS: Yes, I think it tortured a lot of us.

SMITH: Perhaps no one more so than Steve Davis. While relatives of 11 Bulger murder victims got the verdict they'd long sought, Davis was among eight who did not. After two months of trial the jury couldn't agree on whether Bulger killed Davis' sister, Debra.

DAVIS: I'm fit. I'm fit with rage about it because I didn't get nothing out of it. You know, it was money just thrown out the window.

SMITH: In retrospect, Davis says he'd rather have seen Bulger just tried for murder in one of the two other states where he's facing the death penalty. Or prosecutors could have also put Bulger away - effectively for the rest of his life - just by charging him with the dozens of illegal weapons found in the apartment where he was hiding.

KEVIN CULLEN: They could have tried him in two days on the guns charges. That's open and shut and then he's done.

SMITH: That's Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen who spent decades writing about Bulger, and was one of the most invested in seeing him caught and tried. But also, now one of the most disappointed.

CULLEN: That was obviously great theater. But in terms of establishing truths, it really fell short.

SMITH: Indeed, in letters from prison, Bulger bragged about the truths that would come out at trial about the extent of government corruption. But Cullen says the trial failed to reveal anything new even when it could have, like when one of Bulger's former partners in crime testified that they once had 20 police on their payroll.

CULLEN: Well, who are they? If they were giving out envelopes to 20 cops at every Christmas, we need to know who they were. And nobody went down that road.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: Sometimes a half truth is worse than no truth at all.

SMITH: That's Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz.

DERSHOWITZ: I think it does more harm than good to pretend we have closure because I think many people feel satisfied that we know what happened, and we don't.

SMITH: Bulger's blamed the court for limiting his defense, and ultimately how much corruption he could expose. He also blames the government for wasting taxpayers' money since he offered to plead guilty, in exchange for leniency for his girlfriend.

But former federal prosecutor Josh Levy says the government had to bring the case to trial.

JOSH LEVY: There would be a perception out there that the government was trying to hide its dirty laundry and was afraid of what trial would expose. And I don't think there will ever be full redemption. It will always be a black mark on FBI. But I think capturing Mr. Bulger, bringing him to trial, convicting him was an important piece of closure here.

SMITH: Closure maybe an overstatement but Boston University professor and Bulger author Dick Lehr says a jury verdict does offer a kind of finality that a guilty plea never could have.

DICK LEHR: Can you imagine if that deal had gone down what Whitey Bulger would be saying today? I just pled guilty to be a prince because I care about my woman. I wanted them to go easy on her, but that doesn't mean I committed any of these crimes. You know, that would have been his narcissistic, psychopathic spin on things.

SMITH: Lehr says the trial was important to once and for all to dispel the myth of Bulger as some sort of Robin Hood-type or good-bad-guy.

PETER SANTOS: There's this mythic aura around him.

SMITH: Indeed, all through the trial, strangers like 28-year-old Peter Santos lined up to see the infamous gangster.

SANTOS: I mean he's real. I mean this is no urban legend. It's not a movie. I mean it was incredibly chilling.

LEHR: Yeah, I think it was really important to see this guy, you know, in flesh and blood and what a creep he really is.

SMITH: That alone, says Dick Lehr, makes the trial worthwhile.

LEHR: The true Whitey blasted through in those courtroom eruptions with his nasty, you know, expletive outbursts. That's Whitey and we got to see that.

SMITH: It may be the last public view of Bulger and victims say it's exactly how they'll remember the former gangster still trying to be the tough guy, but stripped of his money and power and no longer calling the shots. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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