BOSTON — For the families of 11 murder victims, the conviction of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger brought some sense of justice after decades of frustration. But for others, the jury’s decision was yet another denial of the peace they have long sought.
Even though Bulger was not convicted in the deaths of their loved ones, eight families are hoping for one last chance at closure by testifying this week at the notorious Boston gangster’s sentencing.
But Bulger’s lawyers — and two jurors who sat on the case — say those families should not be allowed to make victim impact statements because the jury acquitted Bulger in those killings.
“My feelings are that 18 American citizens were put through a 10-week trial ... and now the verdict we deliberated on so dutifully is being mocked,” said Janet Uhlar, one of the jurors who sent a letter to Judge Denise Casper asking her to deny the request from prosecutors.
Uhlar told The Associated Press she feels sympathy for the families, but she believes they will never get the kind of closure they are looking for and blames federal prosecutors for “opening the wound of these family members” by asking that they be allowed to make impact statements.
After spending nearly 17 years on the run, the South Boston gangster was convicted in August in a sweeping racketeering indictment that included 19 killings, money-laundering, extortion and weapons charges. A two-day sentencing hearing is scheduled to begin Wednesday in U.S. District Court.
Prosecutors are seeking two consecutive life sentences plus five years for the 84-year-old Bulger. Whether the eight families get to speak or not, he is bound to die in prison.
Bulger’s lawyers say that allowing impact statements from relatives of people he was acquitted of killing “trivializes the jury’s function.”
“The court should only entertain impact statements and other evidence relating to crimes of which he has been convicted,” they argued in a legal brief.
But for families who sat through the trial, only to have the jury find that prosecutors had not proven the case against Bulger in their loved one’s killing, speaking at his sentencing is something they feel they need to do.
William O’Brien Jr., whose father was killed when gunmen opened fire on the car he was driving along a Boston street in 1973, said he was completely blindsided by the jury’s finding that prosecutors had not proven Bulger played a role in his father’s death.
“I can’t even tell you how that made me feel or the mental state that put me in for a month afterward,” he said. “I feel like I need to finish what was started.”
O’Brien never knew his father, who was killed four days before O’Brien was born. He said he hopes to somehow convey his and his mother’s loss to the judge during Bulger’s sentencing hearing.
“Even though I never got to meet him, I still think of him every day. I still feel a bond with him,” O’Brien said.
“To not ever have been able to meet him once or to have the opportunity to go to my first Red Sox game with him, that’s the stuff I can’t come to grips with. That still gets me to this very day.”
Federal prosecutors say family members of all 19 murder victims should be allowed to make either verbal or written victim impact statements for Bulger’s sentencing. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly said there is legal precedent for allowing testimony at sentencing on “acquitted conduct.”
Prosecutors also argue that Bulger was convicted of two racketeering charges that required the jury to find that he was part of a criminal enterprise responsible for the murders of all the victims, regardless of whether he was the actual killer.
“Thus ... family members of the murder victims clearly have a right to be heard at Bulger’s sentencing,” prosecutors wrote.
Casper has not yet ruled on the request.
Bulger was captured in 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., where he had been living with his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig.
When Greig was sentenced in 2012 to eight years in prison for helping Bulger while he was a fugitive, a judge allowed several relatives of people allegedly killed by Bulger to make statements. A federal appeals court later upheld that ruling, finding that a sentencing judge has the right to conduct a “broad inquiry” when deciding an appropriate sentence.
Steve Davis, whose 26-year-old sister, Debra, was strangled in 1981, listened as the jury announced a “no finding” in his sister’s death.
Davis said he still believes his sister was one of Bulger’s victims because Bulger was found guilty of being part of a criminal enterprise that planned and carried out all 19 killings.
“In what way would we not be victims of Bulger?” Davis said. “Everything they did, they did together.”
“I don’t think it would be fair if they didn’t let me speak. I have a few things to say. I was a victim of this whole case.”
Bulger became one of the nation’s most-wanted fugitives when he fled Boston in 1994 ahead of an indictment. While he was on the run, court hearings revealed that Bulger was also an FBI informant who provided information on the rival New England Mafia and other crime groups.