The Whitey Bulger Trial

At the Whitey Bulger Trial, a Glimpse of a World Without Posthumous Mutilations
Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
July 24 2013 6:37 PM

The Whitey Bulger Trial

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A brief glimpse of a world without posthumous mutilations.

Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig walk together with Greig's poodles underfoot, June 1988.
Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig walk with Greig's poodles, June 1988.*

Photo by Boston Globe/Getty Images

It’s another day of testimony from twitchy-faced cretin Stephen Flemmi. While Tuesday focused on Flemmi’s role in several grisly murders, today he’s being asked about the ins and outs of the plea deal he made with the government. As part of this agreement, he was sentenced to life in prison—plus another 30 years on top, a gratuitous sentencing cherry. Given that he’ll die behind bars, why did Flemmi decide to talk?

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

There may have been some minor perks like a bigger cell, access to a TV, and other prison treats. (These are the sorts of things Flemmi complained about before he began cooperating.) But the big, beribboned gift the government handed him was neither lebensraum nor the right to watch Wheel of Fortune. It was his life. By cutting a deal, Flemmi escaped the death penalty.

Good trade-off? Only “The Rifleman” can answer that. You might argue that the cruelest punishment possible is to force Flemmi to contemplate his monstrous crimes for the rest of his life. Make him come to grips with his own demonic deeds. A living hell. But after observing him over these past few days, I don’t get the sense that Flemmi is a fellow prone to self-lacerating introspection.

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For him, alive is always better than dead. Sure, he’s locked up, but he still gets to taste food. Have some brief social interaction once in a while. And every few years, he’s trotted out as a star witness in some dramatic legal proceeding. Which is both a pleasant change of pace and an opportunity to reminisce about the old days—back when life was grand and he was using pliers to pluck the teeth out of skulls.

Really, the only downside is that people now call him a rat. He prefers to refer to his dealings with the feds as a quid pro quo. But as defense attorney Hank Brennan notes, “When you use the term quid pro quo, isn’t that just Latin for rat?” (Zing! Nice one, counselor Brennan!)

One theory bandied about in the hall outside the courtroom Wednesday holds that it was Flemmi, not Whitey, who did the actual hands-on strangling of Flemmi’s girlfriend Debra Davis and his stepdaughter Debbie Hussey. Whitey’s attorney hinted at this during opening arguments. Flemmi clearly had the more personal, more passion-driven motive when it came to offing those women. And at the time of Flemmi’s plea deal, blaming everything on Whitey made a ton of sense: Until Whitey got nabbed in 2011, people thought he’d be on the lam forever, never to be seen again. What was the harm in pinning crimes on a ghost?

I’d love to hear Whitey’s thoughts on the matter. But he remains a wizened little sphinx, silently watching from behind his eyeglasses. It’s not clear he’ll testify at all. During arguments early this morning in front of the judge—before the jury was ushered into the courtroom—Whitey’s defense team complained that the prosecutors have repeatedly suggested in court (again, not in front of the jury) that Whitey should testify himself if he wishes to set the record straight. The defense feels this is a dare, spoken publicly for the benefit of the media. “What will be said in the newspaper, I guarantee,” says defense attorney Jay Carney, “is that the government said the defendant could testify and clear this up.” This makes it sound like Carney has no intention of putting Whitey on the stand. Which will be a tremendous disappointment to newspapers, local TV stations, and online publications everywhere.

Around 11:30 a.m., the prosecution briefly interrupts the Flemmithon to call a witness out of sequence. She’s a former bank teller who once witnessed Flemmi cashing an extorted check for $200,000. For about nine minutes, this nice woman—a blond lady in a patterned blue dress and a pendant necklace—answers questions about the “currency transaction record” that she filed with the Internal Revenue Service. And we suddenly remember what a human being looks and sounds like. She smiles. She giggles when she tries to indicate her signature on a form and can’t make the touchscreen work. Then she’s gone.

“Have a nice vacation,” says Carney, declining to cross-examine her. You can feel everyone in the courtroom longing to follow her, chase after her normalcy, let her take us someplace nice where no one is talking about ropes and guns and posthumous mutilations.

Correction, July 26, 2013: The caption on the photo of Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig walking Greig’s poodles had an incorrect date. It was in 1988, not 1998. (Return to the corrected caption.)

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