Monday, March 7, 2016
What do Bill Cosby and Whitey Bulger have in common? Both have lost challenges to criminal accusations based on the claim that their prosecutions were barred because they received oral, informal grants of immunity from prosecutors.
Last week, the First Circuit denied the appeal of Joseph (Whitey) Bulger, the notorious Boston mobster who was on the lam for 17 years until his 2011 arrest in California. Bulger was convicted after trial in 2013 for racketeering for participating in eleven murders and other crimes, and was sentenced to two life sentences plus five years. He is now 86.
Bulger's primary claim on appeal was that he was denied his constitutional rights to testify and to present an effective defense by the refusal of the trial judge to allow him to testify before the jury that he was granted immunity for both past and future crimes by a now-deceased high-ranking DOJ prosecutor. Interestingly, Bulger claimed that that the purported immunity grant was not in exchange, as one might suppose, for his providing information to or testifying for the prosecutor, but for his protecting the prosecutor's life. He insisted, contrary to widely-accepted reports, that he was not an informant.
The Court of Appeals upheld the district court's rulings that whether the prosecution was barred because of immunity was to be determined prior to trial by the judge, and not by the jury, and thus Burger could not present to the jury testimony about the purported immunity promise . Although the appeals court ruled that Burger had waived consideration of the issue on the merits by his failure to present the trial judge with any evidence, but only with a "broad, bald assertion from defense counsel lacking any particularized details," it reviewed the judge's merits determination on a "plain error" standard, and found that the judge was not "clearly wrong" in deciding that Bulger had failed to demonstrate either that the promise had been made, or, that if it had been made, that the promising prosecutor had authority to make it..
The government described Bulger's claim that the prosecutor promised him immunity "frivolous and absurd." What did give Bulger's contention an infinitesimally slight possibility of credibility, however, was that there was a demonstrated history (although not presented at the trial) that the Boston FBI had for years ignored Bulger's criminal acts when he served as an informant for them.
To be sure, the similarities between the Cosby and Bulger situations are limited. In the Cosby case the then District Attorney, the prosecutor who, if anyone, had authority to grant immunity, testified that he did promise not to prosecute Cosby. Here, there was no corroboration whatsoever of the purported promise by a now-dead prosecutor, and the Department of Justice strongly contended that even had such a promise been made, the prosecutor had no authority to make it. However, the decision, made by a respected appellate court (although under a different set of procedural rules and no binding or other authority over a Pennsylvania state trial court) does squarely hold that whether a prosecutor has granted immunity is not a jury question. And, should Cosby try to re-litigate the immunity issue before his jury, the decision will likely be cited by the District Attorney.