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Kin lose awards tied to ’82 killings

Court says suits filed too late

By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011

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After decades of legal wrangling, the families of two men who were gunned down on Boston’s waterfront in 1982 by longtime FBI informant James “Whitey’’ Bulger proved the government was to blame and were awarded nearly $8.5 million two years ago.

But, yesterday, a federal Appeals Court reversed the decision, ruling that the families of Michael Donahue and Edward “Brian’’ Halloran were not entitled to anything because they filed their civil suits against the government too late.

“The murders robbed both the Donahue and Halloran families of loved ones, and their losses were exacerbated by years of government evasion,’’ the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit wrote in a 55-page decision granting the government’s motion to dismiss the suits. “But statutes of limitation are designed to operate mechanically. They aspire to bring a sense of finality to events that occurred in the distant past and to afford defendants the comfort of knowing that stale claims cannot be pursued.’’

Donahue’s widow, Patricia, who was left alone to raise three young boys, said last night that she was shocked and disappointed by the ruling, which failed to hold the government accountable even after two judges found it was liable for her husband’s death because of the FBI’s corrupt relationship with Bulger.

“We won in court and then the government who is responsible for my husband’s death wins the case,’’ said Donahue, of Dorchester. “I am just so disappointed in the system. . . . We were treated like criminals, and we were the victims.’’

Michael Donahue, 32, a Dorchester truck driver and innocent bystander, was giving Halloran, 41, a Bulger associate, a ride home from a bar on Boston’s waterfront on May 11, 1982, when Bulger and an unidentified accomplice opened fire on the pair, killing both.

Bulger’s longtime sidekick and fellow informant, Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi, testified during court proceedings in recent years that former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. warned him and Bulger in 1982 that Halloran was cooperating with the FBI and had implicated the gangsters in a slaying. Flemmi said the tip prompted Bulger and an accomplice to ambush Halloran when he came out of a bar on Northern Avenue and got into a car.

The late US District Court Judge Reginald C. Lindsay found the FBI was responsible for the killings because of its negligent handling of Bulger and Flemmi. After Lindsay’s death in March 2009, US District Judge William G. Young held a trial on damages and awarded $6.4 million to Donahue’s wife and sons and $2 million to Halloran’s widow.

In yesterday’s ruling, the three Appeals Court judges said the families were required to file a claim within two years of knowing that they had a case against the government. The Halloran estate filed the claim in September 2000, and Donahue’s estate filed in March 2001. The court found they filed too late because it was well known by September 1998, based on intense media coverage, that the FBI had a corrupt relationship with Bulger and Flemmi and could be liable for the slayings of Donahue and Halloran.

Bulger and Flemmi were publicly exposed as longtime FBI informants in 1997, but they were not indicted in the murders until September 2000. Bulger, who fled in 1995 to avoid federal racketeering charges, was later charged with 19 murders and remains one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted. Flemmi is serving a life sentence for 10 murders. Connolly is serving a 10-year prison term for his 2002 racketeering conviction and another 40 years for murder in Florida.

“There’s no apologies, no ‘I’m sorry,’ from the government,’’ Patricia Donahue said. “What kind of government tells me I should have read the newspaper and we lose because of that?’’

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.