Joan Vennochi

Bulger loses the first round

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / July 3, 2011

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JAMES “WHITEY’’ Bulger just lost round one.

Mark L. Wolf, the federal judge who exposed the corrupt relationship between Bulger and the FBI, is off his case. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the notorious gangster wanted to go on trial in Wolf’s courtroom.

Last week, Wolf, chief judge of the Federal District Court in Massachusetts, granted a request by prosecutors to dismiss racketeering charges brought against Bulger in 1995. In doing so, Wolf agreed that it was more important for the 81-year-old defendant to stand trial in a later case that charges him with 19 murders. That means the racketeering case, which Wolf presided over, is done. Judge Richard G. Stearns, who was assigned the original murder case, keeps it.

For any judge, Bulger is the case of a lifetime. More than a horrific mob murder story, it’s also a horrific story of complicity between the FBI and its gangster informants. It’s even bigger for Wolf, because he brought the corruption to center stage.

In 1998, he held a 10-month hearing about the FBI’s failure to tell the US attorney in Boston that Bulger and Stephen Flemmi were their informants. Wolf’s extensive opinion, famous in criminal-justice circles, explained how FBI agent John Connolly Jr. protected Bulger and Flemmi as they murdered.

The judge understands the twisted ties between law enforcers and gangsters better than anyone. But he was right to dismiss the racketeering charges and let the government cut to the more serious murder charges.

Donald K. Stern, the former Massachusetts US attorney who oversaw both Bulger indictments, said the most important question is: “What’s best for the interests of justice, and what’s best for the interests of the victims?’’

As Stern sees it, what’s best is “having Whitey Bulger face the music on the most serious charges and those which are most consistent, and given the passage of time, most able to be presented with admissible evidence in a court of law.’’

Dropping the racketeering charges allows that to happen. However, it also makes it harder for Bulger to put the FBI on trial with him. That’s good news for the FBI, which was intimately tied to the racketeering case.

Now the issue for Bulger is less about the FBI and more about murder. “I don’t think he will argue, ‘I authorized 19 murders based on the direction of the FBI’ . . . No jury is going to accept that,’’ said Martin Weinberg, a prominent criminal defense lawyer who represented John Martorano, the mob hit man who was the first Bulger co-defendant to cooperate with the FBI.

There was also “judge-shopping’’ going on last week - and one of the shoppers was Bulger.

The defendant, via his provisional lawyer, Peter Krupp, wanted the case before Wolf because he knew it would take longer to adjudicate there. The racketeering charges would bog down court action, and so would Wolf. The judge is routinely described as brilliant, but also very slow, as in methodical.

“If you represented an 81-year- old man, would you rather have a judge who takes five years to try the case? Or would you rather have a judge who takes two years? Mark is deliberate. Cases that he has tend to take much longer,’’ said one prominent Boston lawyer who did not want to be named.

At the same time, prosecutors also wanted out of Wolf’s courtroom. Besides the public interest in cutting to the murder case, Wolf is tough, especially on government lawyers. When prosecutors recently won convictions against House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and co-defendant Richard McDonough, Wolf pronounced the prosecution “impressive. Not perfect.’’

In the end, courthouse politics are secondary to bringing Bulger to justice as swiftly as possible on those charges that connect him to a slew of graves in Dorchester and Quincy. The Plymouth House of Correction is not Santa Monica, but it’s not as bad as it could be. Given his age, time is Bulger’s friend.

The government is right to speed up the accountability clock on multiple murders and so is Wolf.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at