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Many victims of former Boston mob boss James Whitey Bulger have been waiting decades for this moment. In federal court in Boston today, relatives of those killed by Bulger will face the former gangster and describe their pain. Bulger was convicted in August on 11 murders charges, and a federal judge is now considering his sentence, as NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: There's little suspense around Bulger's sentencing. Even the minimum would be enough to send the now-84-year-old away for the rest of his life. Today's hearing, to many victims, is less about Bulger than it is about them.
PATRICIA DONAHUE: He devastated my family, ruined my life, just like that - boom...
(SOUNDBITE OF A CLAP)
SMITH: It was Mother's Day weekend 1982, just after her youngest son's communion, when Patricia Donahue was home with her three boys and did a double take on the evening news. She recognized her husband's car over a graphic that said: Gangland Slaying.
DONAHUE: I was, like, what? I was hyper-ventilating. It was crazy.
SMITH: It would be hours before she found out her husband, Michael Donahue, had died, killed in a spray of bullets aimed at the guy Donahue was driving home that night. Patricia says it took a while before she could lay to rest the painful, nagging doubts and begin to grieve.
DONAHUE: You actually second-guess yourself. You know? Like, was he doing something I didn't know about? But thank God that wasn't the case. My husband was not part of that. He just was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPENING DRAWERS)
DONAHUE: Where did I put them? Hold on.
SMITH: Donahue digs into a dresser drawer for some old pictures that she says are still too painful to keep out.
DONAHUE: That's Charlie when he was little.
SMITH: She says she'll use her time today to talk about her kids and their father.
DONAHUE: This is - he used to be a coach to our softball team.
SMITH: As she puts it, she wants Bulger to know what kind of a man he killed.
DONAHUE: He had one of those laughs, no matter where you were, you could hear - if you heard that laugh, you knew who it was.
SMITH: Donahue says she'll talk about all the good in her husband, and standing just a few feet from Bulger, she'll also lay out the broken family he left behind.
DONAHUE: Not that it's going to matter to him, but matters to me. It'll make me feel good to say it to him, whether he listens or he doesn't listen.
SMITH: For other relatives, that listening part is a little more important. Steve Davis spoke at the sentencing last year for Bulger's girlfriend, Catherine Greig. When she refused to look up at him, he erupted in anger, which he says may well happen again.
STEVE DAVIS: I got 30-something years of a heart full of anger, and it's hard. He carved out a hole that we're all trying to patch up.
SMITH: Davis says his pain only got worse in August when the jury could not agree on whether it was Bulger, or one of his partners, who killed his sister.
DAVIS: It's, like, in my heart, my sister doesn't have an answer. And, you know, I feel she's in Purgatory, in limbo, waiting to be set free.
SMITH: Bulger's attorneys had tried to block victim impact statements from Davis and others, since the government failed to prove that their loved ones were murdered by Bulger. But the judge has discretion to let them speak, as victims of the more broad racketeering crimes Bulger was convicted of. Davis says he still believes Bulger's partly responsible for his sister's murder, regardless of who actually strangled her, and he says Bulger owes him answers.
DAVIS: Know why - I want to know why.
SMITH: Bulger could answer, if he wants. At trial, he declined to testify. But former federal prosecutor Josh Levy says Bulger and his lawyers may see this as a better opportunity.
JOSH LEVY: It's certainly quite possible that they made the calculus that if he has certain things he wants to get off chest, he's better off doing it at sentencing than he would be taking the stand, because he will not be cross-examined. He's going to have, essentially, a free playing field.
SMITH: Many have speculated that Bulger's purposely holding back saving his story for a book or a movie. Just in case, Davis says it's only fair that the judge award all future earnings to victims' families, not because he wants the money, Davis says.
DAVIS: Oh, I want it to eat him alive, when he lays back in that little three-inch mattress with that plastic pillow of his. And I want him to know we got him. We own him - just rip him apart.
SMITH: Davis says he hopes Bulger does speak. He wants to hear him as a weak old man, Davis says, without all his power and money. And if Bulger has any parting shots implicating other gangsters or corrupt law enforcement agents, victims' families say they're on the same page on that one.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.