A legal system for all, even Whitey
After 16 years running from the US legal system, James “Whitey’’ Bulger and his companion, Catherine Greig, are now embracing it - with both arms.
Claiming destitution and qualifying for taxpayer-financed attorneys. Using the Homestead Act to try to protect assets from seizure. Employing due process rights afforded by the Constitution to delay judgment day on charges of murder and harboring a fugitive, respectively.
“Why should they be allowed to use the system this way?’’ some people ask in exasperation.
“The system isn’t designed for him; it’s designed for the rest of us,’’ former federal prosecutor Beth Wilkinson said of Bulger. “If it can work for the most troubling defendants, it can work for the rest of us.’’
Defense attorney Harvey Silverglate agrees.
He notes the federal legal system is an outgrowth of English Common Law, giving it ancient roots. Its more modern contours are defined by the Constitution.
Chief among them is the presumption of innocence, even for Bulger, who, as a fugitive, spent nearly a decade alongside Osama bin Laden on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Some might construe that as evidence of guilt rather than innocence.
Second, the system is designed for consistency and fairness, no matter the defendant and regardless of whether an accused more successfully navigates it because of wealth, experience, or another reason.
“That’s what the rule of law is: It’s applied no matter how loathsome the defendant is - or appears to be at the time,’’ said Silverglate. He speaks from personal experience.
The Cambridge attorney helped defend Louise Woodward, the English au pair who was convicted of second-degree murder for the 1997 death of infant Matthew Eappen of Newton. A judge later reduced the verdict to involuntary manslaughter, and Woodward was freed on time served, sparking an international uproar.
“You start tinkering with the system for what you and I think are the obvious case of guilt, the obviously loathsome defendant, you start to erode the protections of that system for everybody,’’ said Silverglate. “The statue of justice is blindfolded for a reason.’’
Bulger has been charged in 19 murders. He and Greig allegedly fled Massachusetts just before he was indicted on federal racketeering charges in January 1995. FBI agents found them in June living in a Santa Monica, Calif., apartment, where the FBI said it found more than $800,000 in cash and more than 30 guns.
Legal experts say it could be two or three years before Bulger ever hears a verdict in a trial. Some, including Silverglate, suggest a quicker verdict could come from trying him in California on charges of being a convicted felon in possession of firearms. Others suggest trying him first for killings in Oklahoma or Florida, two states with the death penalty.
But relatives of those Bulger is accused of killing in Massachusetts favor a local trial, not only so they can see an accused mobster brought to justice, but also so they can hear the full details of any law enforcement protections he received as a Boston FBI informant for two decades.
That will require a lengthy court process for which taxpayers will fund the prosecution and defense, as well as courthouse security and the defendants’ incarceration.
Wilkinson argues it is a necessary expense, both financially and legally. She, too, speaks from personal experience.
Now a Washington, D.C., attorney, Wilkinson was on the team that prosecuted Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The act of domestic terrorism killed 168 people and injured more than 680.
Her closing argument is credited with securing the death penalty for McVeigh, who was executed in 2001.
“I always take extraordinary comfort in the fact that he had abundant resources and an excellent defense team because there was never any question later about his guilt or the verdict,’’ said Wilkinson.
She said relatives of McVeigh’s victims have told her they feel the same, even in the face of public questions about the time and money spent on his trial.
“I think people’s emotions are totally understandable, and that’s why we have the system we do,’’ Wilkinson said. “We can’t let the mob mentality rule.’’