The trial of Whitey Bulger

whiteybulger-trial-620.jpgThis June 3, 2013, courtroom sketch depicts James "Whitey" Bulger, centre, during a pretrial conference before U.S. District Judge Denise Casper, left rear, in a federal courtroom in Boston. Bulger is flanked by his attorneys Henry Brennan, left, and J.W. Carney Jr., standing at right. (Jane Flavell Collins/Associated Press)

First aired on Day 6 (13/7/13)

James "Whitey" Bulger is a near-mythic figure in Boston's criminal underworld. In the 1970s and '80s he allegedly ran that city's Winter Hill Gang. And beginning in 1975, he was an informant for the FBI. Bulger went on the run in 1994, and the law didn't catch up with him until 2011. Now he's facing charges of racketeering and 19 murders and his trial began on June 12, 2013. Kevin Cullen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the Boston Globe, was the first reporter to raise questions about Bulger's relationship with the FBI and co-authored Bulger's eponymous biography. He's been covering the case and spoke to Day 6 about the "circus" surrounding it all.


Cullen grew up in south Boston, where Bulger played a powerful role in the crime world. He was a teenager when he first heard about the notorious gangster. "You learned about Whitey by osmosis," Cullen told Day 6 guest host Rachel Giese. "All you knew was that he was a gangster and you really weren't supposed to throw his name around in public."

Whitey was a name Bulger didn't like -- he preferred Jim or Jimmy, Cullen says -- and he did his best to control its use, just as he did his best to control his image. He wanted to be known as a "criminal with principles" and made sure he was seen helping senior citizens with their groceries around town. 

Bulger's image management didn't quite work because he became the kind of criminal even other criminals avoided: an informant and a murderer. "There's nothing worse in the Irish consciousness than being an informant. It's worse than being a murderer," Cullen said. In fact, this has been Bulger's defence since the first day of the trial. His lawyer, Jay Carney, admitted in his opening statement that Bulger was indeed guilty of 80 per cent of the crimes he's accused of committing. According to Cullen, Carney said, "Yeah, my client is an extortionist, he's a racketeer, he's a bookmaker, he's a drug trafficker. But he didn't kill those women and he was not an FBI informant."

Whether this will be enough to acquit Bulger remains to be seen. His former protege, Kevin Weeks, testified against him, claiming Bulger has "killed 40 men" and calling him a rat. Cullen said that Weeks's testimony and betrayal of Bulger was "actually Shakespearean." Weeks called Bulger a rat and chaos in the courtroom ensued. When Weeks called him a rat "Whitey kind of hissed very loudly 'you suck' and that profanity was followed by another profanity. Whitey followed Kevin's profane retort with his own profane retort." The exchange was eventually stopped by the judge, but Cullen said "it really did capture viscerally the emotions at play here."

Cullen believes everything Bulger is doing in the courtroom, from his outbursts to his choice of clothing (jeans and sneakers instead of the customary suit), is carefully calculated. "He looks likes an old man waiting for a bus," Cullen said. "He is showing himself as the thug he is and was."

Whether or not the jury agrees remains to be seen. But regardless of the outcome of the trial, Bulger's reign in South Boston will be talked about for years to come. "In the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s, Whitey Bulger was the number one terrorist in Boston," Cullen said. "He terrorized the city."

That kind of terror isn't easily forgotten.

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