- Though 84-year-old former crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger declined to take the stand at the summer 2013 trial where he was convicted of multiple counts of murder and extortion, he can be heard defending himself in a new documentary playing at the Sundance Film Festival.
Bulger is perhaps the most compelling voice in Joe Berlinger's film "Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger," which also includes interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys, journalists and victims' relatives.
"The most exciting thing about this film is it's the first time we actually hear Whitey Bulger," the director said in an interview. "And it will probably be the last time, because he is now in the custody of the federal government, which has deemed Whitey off limits for interviews."
In the film, Bulger tells his defense attorney that he was never an FBI informant, but rather had federal agents on his payroll, paying up to $50,000 in cash for information, wiretaps and photo surveillance.
"Money is the common denominator," Bulger tells his attorney, J.W. Carney, Jr., in a phone conversation. "Organized crime people cannot exist without contacts, and these people know it... Everybody can be corrupted."
Bulger was just as vehement in his denial about being an FBI informant - an issue critical to Berlinger's film, if not Bulger's criminal trial.
"I never, never, never cracked," Bulger says, describing an instance where he was sentenced to solitary confinement for four months for refusing to give up the name of a guard who'd smuggled him some blades during a failed escape plot. "And the Boston FBI? No way."
Bulger asserts: "We're payin', we're not sayin'. We're buyin', we're not sellin'."
Berlinger explores the defense team's allegations that Bulger was not an informant and suggests "there's a much deeper conspiracy and cover up that's going on."
"There are important questions of government corruption in the Whitey Bulger case that need to be addressed," the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated director said.
The film shows how Bulger's name was used to get search warrants in various cases that led to the arrests and convictions of mafia members. If Bulger wasn't an informant, those warrants would have been deceptively secured, meaning the convictions could be overturned and the government could be liable.
Bulger says he was "shocked" when he learned his longtime contact, disgraced former FBI Special Agent John Connolly, kept an informant file on him. The film suggests the file may have been fabricated.
"I consider it the worst betrayal that ever happened to me in my life," Bulger says. "I was the guy who did the directing. He didn't direct me."
Berlinger maintains that the film is not an apology for Bulger.
"Bulger is a vicious, brutal killer who deserves to be behind bars," Berlinger said. "But we need to understand why he was allowed to operate... and why he was tipped off and allowed to be on the lam for 16 years."
Bulger was indicted in 1994. He was finally arrested in June, 2011, near the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, in Santa Monica, Calif.
"My whole life changed when I was with her," Bulger tells his attorney. "When I was captured, I told them: If you people, I says, will let Catherine go, I'll plead guilty to all crimes. Any crime, I says, innocent or guilty. You can execute me, you can give me life sentences, you can do whatever youse want, but I want her to be free. And I meant it. And I mean it today."
Greig was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for harboring a fugitive.
Bulger shares his disbelief in learning that his longtime associate, Stephen Flemmi, was an FBI informant.
"I think he's insane myself, Stevie," Bulger says. "In court, he's glaring at me. I'm looking at him and thinking... I never said a word against you. I'm the injured party."
Bulger was also frustrated that a deal he made for immunity with then-federal prosecutor Jeremiah O'Sullivan wasn't allowed as part of his defense.
"I says this is a sham trial," Bulger remarks. "I think the Feds have the green light. Nobody ever checks on them."
After 4 ½ days of deliberations, a jury found Bulger guilty of 11 of the 19 murders he was accused of, along with nearly all the other crimes, as well as a laundry list of other counts, including possession of machine guns.
Berlinger said his film takes no position, but presents various viewpoints and treats the audience like a jury allowed to draw its own conclusions.
"But the truth that rises to the top," the director said, "is that allegations of government corruption - whether they're true or not - need to be explored if we are to ever have faith in our institutions (and) the whole criminal justice system."