A federal appeals court has refused to overturn the decades-old conviction of a marijuana dealer who claimed FBI agents lied during pre-trial hearings in his case to protect James “Whitey” Bulger.
The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit concluded today that even if the FBI withheld information about Bulger’s role in the 1983 arrest of Michael F. Murray, a new trial or sentence was not warranted because there was overwhelming evidence that Murray was guilty.
“In rejecting this petition, we in no way excuse or condone the FBI’s illicit involvement with Whitey Bulger,” the court wrote. “But the connection to Murray’s 1984 conviction, for a crime he did commit, is too attenuated to support his petition.”
Murray, now 61, and six other men were arrested in April 1983 after FBI and US Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized 15 tons of marijuana from a South Boston warehouse, a garage, and a couple of vehicles.
At the time, an FBI agent testified that agents had been targeting the drug ring operated by Murray’s brother, Joseph, for nearly a year after receiving tips from several unidentified informants. But the agent said he accidentally stumbled upon the location of the warehouse where the drugs were stored while conducting surveillance.
Murray’s bid to get the evidence against him tossed out during the 1980s on the grounds that the search warrant was flawed was unsuccessful and he spent 18 months in prison for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana.
In 2006, when Bulger was a fugitive and the government was fending off lawsuits based on his corrupt relationship with the FBI, it was revealed that Bulger had tipped the FBI to Joseph Murray’s ring in 1983 because he was angry that the Charlestown drug smuggler was importing drugs into South Boston without giving him a cut of the profits. After the raid at the South Boston warehouse, Bulger began extorting monthly payments from Joseph Murray, and the pair were also involved in an ill-fated plot to ship weapons to the outlawed Irish Republican Army, according to court testimony. Joseph Murray was shot to death by his wife in 1992.
Michael Murray’s lawyers, Rosemary Curran Scapicchio and Dennis M. Toomey, filed a petition in 2007 to overturn his old conviction, arguing that Bulger told the FBI about the location of the South Boston warehouse and FBI agents lied to protect their informant. Murray’s lawyers appealed after a judge rejected the claim.
“Evidence that the FBI was actively doing Bulger’s bidding, and that Bulger set into motion the entire investigation into the Joe Murray Crew, would have materially altered the verdict because none of the agents’ testimony could be credited,” the lawyers argued in their brief to the appeals court.
Even though Michael Murray has already served his sentence for the 1983 case, it came back to haunt him in 1994 when he was convicted of a second drug offense: smuggling some 10,000 pounds of marijuana from Texas to Massachusetts. As a repeat offender, Murray was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He is currently being held at the Federal Correctional Institute at Allenwood, Pennsylavia, and slated to be released in 2020.
“The unique nature of the evidence that was hidden from Murray for decades has resulted in a conviction that is fundamentally unjust,’’ wrote the lawyers, urging the appeals court to overturn the lower court ruling denying Murray’s request to have his old conviction overturned and a lower sentence imposed for his subsequent drug conviction.
Federal prosecutors argued in a brief filed in the appeals court that Murray failed to prove that agents lied to protect Bulger and said that the most damning evidence against Murray was that he was seen driving a van containing bales of marijuana.
Bulger, 83, fled Boston shortly before his 1995 federal racketeering indictment after being warned by his former FBI handler, John J. Connolly Jr., that his arrest was imminent. Bulger was captured in Santa Monica, Calif. in June 2011 and is slated to stand trial in June for 19 murders.
The federal appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday on a request by Bulger’s lawyer, J.W. Carney J., to order the trial judge to step aside because of his close ties to the government. Bulger claims he was granted immunity from prosecution by late federal prosecutor Jeremiah O’Sullivan.
Carney has argued that US District Judge Richard Stearns should recuse himself as the trial judge because he was a prosecutor in the US Attorney’s office in 1980s and the defense wants to call him as a witness at trial. Carney also cited Stearns’s close friendship with FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, who was also a prosecutor in the US attorney’s office in the 1980s.