June 28, 2011
The Judge Who Cracked the Bulger Case
For anyone trying to fathom James (Whitey) Bulger's long, pathological career on both sides of the law, a 661-page opinion by Mark Wolf, chief judge of the Federal District Court in Massachusetts, tells the inside story.
In 1998, the judge held a 10-month hearing on the F.B.I.'s failure to tell the United States attorney in Boston that Mr. Bulger and Stephen (the Rifleman) Flemmi were their informants against organized crime.
The judge uncovered that John Connolly Jr., the F.B.I. agent who was their handler, had protected Mr. Bulger, a 15-year informant, and Mr. Flemmi, a 25-year informant, as they committed murder and conspired with the Mafia, in exchange for leads about the Mafia. It was Mr. Connolly who tipped off Mr. Bulger that he was about to be indicted and sent him on the lam. Judge Wolf testified against the F.B.I. agent at a 2002 trial before another judge. Mr. Connolly was sentenced to 10 years for racketeering, obstruction of justice and making false statements to investigators.
From his investigation, Judge Wolf also concluded that the government couldn't use crucial evidence against Mr. Flemmi that it had gathered through wiretaps against other mobsters because it had granted him partial immunity. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, overturned that part of the judge's ruling, holding that only prosecutors and not the F.B.I. could grant immunity.
The Wolf opinion is famous in the world of criminal justice. It led to high-profile hearings in Congress on "The F.B.I.'s Use of Murderers as Informants."
The only time Judge Wolf commented publicly about this saga was a decade ago when he sentenced Mr. Flemmi to life in prison for his part in 10 murders. He said that "the F.B.I.'s relationship with Bulger and Flemmi was not an isolated, aberrant occurrence" when it came to the Top Echelon informants program. He found "a long pattern of the F.B.I." ignoring the Constitution's requirement that it be "candid with the courts" and prosecutors.
Judges are supposed to dispense justice but rarely root out crimes. As a result of Judge Wolf's courage and persistence, the government has paid more than $100 million in claims to families of people murdered by informants shielded by the F.B.I. There is no good evidence that the F.B.I. has set up independent oversight of its informants program like what the judge called for. It's high time.