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The Unlikely Heroes of the Bulger Trial

It’s unusual for a criminal trial to endear the victims’ families to the lawyers for the defense. But up in Boston, where the mobster James "Whitey" Bulger has spent the summer on trial for nineteen murders (along with dozens of other counts of racketeering and conspiracy), that’s exactly what happened. When the jury announced its decisions Monday, after 32 hours of deliberation, eleven families got the guilty verdicts they had been waiting for since the 1970s and '80s, while the rest grimly learned that Bulger’s role in their losses would never be proven. Some sobbed in the hallways. But they still had kind words for J.W. Carney and Hank Brennan—the two men who argued Bulger’s case.

Steve Davis, whose sister, Debra, Bulger allegedly strangled and dumped in a marsh—she knew too much from years of dating his partner, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi—was one of the family members who received bad news. After attending every single day of the two-month trial, he sat in silence as the jury read that there was no finding in his sister’s death. But he considered the defense lawyers nothing but honorable. Brennan “put up a good fight,” he told the gaggle of press. “He’s a good attorney. I’d hire him in a second.” Tom Donahue, whose father was shot to death when he gave a neighbor, FBI informant Brian Halloran, a ride home, praised the defense even as he celebrated a guilty verdict. “The families are thanking the defense for bringing out the evidence that the prosecution didn’t,” he said.

Bulger’s labyrinthine history has created a strange alignment of interests. Carney and Brennan built much of their case around the effort to prove that Bulger was never an informant for the FBI (something Bulger also contends because “snitching” violated his street gang's code), hoping to undermine the credibility of prosecution witnesses who swore he was. Short of that, they emphasized the evidence that the FBI agents involved were just as crooked as Bulger, and the dubious ethics of the prosecution’s case, built from the testimony of murderers and criminals whose memories had bought them more lenient punishments.

“We thought we were going to expose a little bit of government corruption. Little did we think the government would expose more corruption than we ever could’ve,” Brennan said after the verdict. “You saw the government bring out witnesses that had deals, life, money, and so at some point, hopefully this case is the beginning where people reflect a little bit on our government.”

No one could agree more than the victims’ families, most of whose loved ones were murdered after Bulger is believed to have turned informant, in 1975—and sometimes with help from Bulger’s handler, Agent John Connolly. The people on the other side of the courtroom from Carney, Brennan, and their client had every reason to lay their grievances at the government’s door—and to resent the prosecution’s reliance on the twisted characters who could speak against Bulger in such detail only because they used to follow him. Steve Davis had to watch his sister’s old beau recount the night he lured 26-year-old Debra to a vacant house and stood by while Bulger choked her. In the words of Connie Leonard, who said the prosecution “didn’t deliver” on the verdict for her father, “The case worked for [the witnesses] the way they needed it to work. They brought us all back into it.” She added: “They’re not better than they were 20 years ago… They’re as crooked as you please.”

In a role reversal worthy of the case’s upside-down morality, the defense uncovered corruption that the prosecution would have left untouched, and became unlikely heroes in the eyes of the victims. But their crusade served their legal strategy, and their spin. Carney said Bulger was “pleased” that his trial “was able to highlight the corruption that he was in the middle of.” Brennan said, “The government pinned their hopes on witnesses who we thought had an absolute lack of credibility, had an extraordinary motive to lie, and were not guides that a reasonable person could follow…and in someway that’s reflected itself in the verdict.” Of course, the other thing reflected in the verdict is Bulger, weighed down by at least a small share of the cruelty he inflicted in his lifetime. 

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.