It took 16 years for authorities to catch reputed Boston mob boss James Whitey Bulger. He was captured this past June in Santa Monica, Calif., and is charged in a string of murders.
For families of alleged victims, it’s been a long wait. They’ve also spent the past decade trying to get the FBI to pay for letting those murders happen.
Several families sued the FBI and won millions of dollars, but they’ll be back in court Thursday as government lawyers try to overturn those judgments.
Seve Davis still gets worked up thinking about the day mobster Steven “The Rifleman” Flemmi admitted in court he lured Davis’ sister Debra into a house and watched Whitey Bulger strangle her to death.
Davis literally lunged at Flemmi and was dragged from court that day. He was enraged at the mobsters and at the FBI, which was using the mobsters as informants, and seemed willing to let them get away with murder.
“It’s sick,” Davis says. “The government that was supposed to uphold and protect us, they weren’t protecting us, they were allowing this to happen.”
Davis is one of several victims’ relatives who convinced a federal judge the FBI should pay nearly $3 million for being partly responsible for the murders Bulger and Flemmi allegedly committed.
“All the lives that were take in all the years, 16 or 17 lives could of been saved if they took them off the street,” Davis adds.
The families’ attorneys declined to comment, but William Christie, who represents other relatives in similar suits, says there’s no question the FBI is liable for turning a blind eye, and not controlling the violent mobsters they’d teamed up with.
“Its sort of the type of theory,” Christie says, “You let wild dog loose in the park and the dog ends up biting somebody, the owner of the dog is responsible.”
But government lawyers say it’s a stretch to blame the FBI. They also declined to comment, but in court papers they argue the FBI couldn’t have known who was going to be killed. And, and there’s no proof that the murders wouldn’t have happened anyway.
The government also argues the damages were way too high and the families made their claims too late.
Earlier this year, government lawyers used that same argument to appeal two similar cases, and did get those multi-million dollar awards thrown out.
“We consider it bull crap, know what I mean,” asks Tommy Donahue, who spent years believing Bulger would never be found or tried for the murder of his father Michael Donahue. So when he got a civil judgment against the FBI, he was elated that at least someone would be held responsible.
Donahue says it was devastating to see the government then continue to argue on appeal to let the FBI off the hook.
“It’s sickening to me,” Donahue says. “How can you give someone the green light to go around murder people and sell drugs in the city and not feel like they’re responsible? That’s beyond denial, that’s almost pathological.”
“It is appalling that the government refuses to admit error,” says Harvard law professor Harvey Silverglate. “I’ve been doing this kind of work for over 40 years, it isn’t surprising.”
Government especially has an obligation to make amends for its mistakes, he says, but ironically it won’t do itself, what it demands from common criminals.
“The government insists that acceptance of responsibility is a major factor in sentence reduction, and yet, it’s the one thing that government is worst at,” Silverglate says.
Victims’ families say they’re not holding their breath for any heartfelt apologies but having a court say, what the government will not, would at least be something.