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Victims' Relatives To Face Whitey Bulger At Sentencing Hearing

James "Whitey" Bulger was captured in June 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., with his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig.
James "Whitey" Bulger was captured in June 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., with his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig.

It's the moment many victims of former Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger have been waiting decades for: In federal court in Boston, relatives of those killed by Bulger will face the former gangster and describe their pain.

Bulger was convicted in August of taking part in 11 murders while running a massive criminal enterprise for decades. There is little suspense around Bulger's sentencing — even the minimum would be enough to send the 84-year-old away for the rest of his life.

To many victims, Wednesday's sentencing hearing is less about Bulger than it is about them.

"He devastated my family, ruined my life — just like that, boom, over," says Patricia Donahue.

It was Mother's Day weekend in 1982. Donahue was home with her three boys and did a double take seeing the evening news. She recognized her husband's car over a graphic that read: Gangland Slaying.

"I was like, what? I was hyperventilating. It was crazy," Donahue says.

It would be hours before she found out her husband, Michael Donahue, had died — killed in a spray of bullets aimed at the guy he was driving home that night.

She says it took a while before she could lay to rest the painful, nagging doubts and begin to grieve.

"You actually second-guess yourself. Was he doing something I didn't know about? But thank God that was not the case. My husband was not part of that. He just was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Donahue digs into a dresser drawer for some old pictures that she says are still too painful to keep out. She says she'll use her time in court to talk about her kids and their father. As she puts it, she wants Bulger to know what kind of a man he killed.

"He had one of those laughs — no matter where you were, if you heard that laugh you knew who it was," she says.

Donahue says she'll talk about all the good in her husband. And standing just a few feet from Bulger, she will also lay out the broken family he left behind.

"Not that it's gonna matter to him, but it matters to me. It'll make me feel good to say it to him, whether he listens or he doesn't listen," Donahue says.

For other relatives, that listening part is a little more important. Steve Davis spoke at the sentencing last year for Bulger's girlfriend, Catherine Greig. When she refused to look up at him, Davis erupted in anger, which he says may well happen again.

"I got 30-something years of a heart full of anger — and it's hard. He carved a hole that we're all trying to patch up," he says.

Davis says his pain only got worse in August when the jury could not agree on whether it was Bulger or one of his partners who killed his sister.

"It's like in my heart, my sister doesn't have an answer, you know, I feel she's in purgatory, in limbo, waiting to be set free," Davis says.

Bulger's attorneys had tried to block victim impact statements from Davis and others since the government failed to prove that their loved ones were murdered by Bulger. But the judge has discretion to let them speak as victims of the more broad racketeering crimes Bulger was convicted of.

Davis says he still believes Bulger is partly responsible for his sister's murder, regardless of who actually strangled her, and he says Bulger owes him answers.

"I wanna know why," Davis says.

Bulger could answer if he wants. At trial, he declined to testify in his own defense, but former federal prosecutor Josh Levy says Bulger and his lawyers may see this as a better opportunity.

"It's certainly quite possible that they made the calculus that if he has certain things he wants to get off his chest, he's better off doing it at sentencing than he would be taking the stand. Because he will not be cross-examined; he's gonna have essentially a free playing field," Levy says.

Many have speculated that Bulger is purposely holding back, saving his story for a book or a movie.

Just in case, Davis says it's only fair that the judge award all future earnings to victims' families — but not because he wants the money.

"I want it to eat him alive when he lays back in that little 3-inch mattress with that plastic pillow of his. I want him to know we got him, we own him; just rip him apart," he says.

Davis says he hopes Bulger does speak; he wants to hear him as a weak old man without all his power and money.

And if Bulger has any parting shots implicating other gangsters or corrupt law enforcement agents, victims' families say they're on the same page on that one.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.