(CN) – The 1st Circuit has voided an award of $8.4 million in damages to the families of two men killed by Boston mobsters in 1982, after concluding that their wrongful death claims against the FBI – which had aided and abetted the murders – were not timely filed.
The case and the opinion, both of which read like a Hollywood movie, revolve around James “Whitey” Bulger, who led the Boston-area Winter Hill Gang crime syndicate while, for several years, acting as one of the FBI’s “top echelon” informants.
Over the years Bulger and another informant, Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi, provided the FBI with information leading to the conviction of dozens of members of rival gangs, including the Mafia.
In return, the FBI protected the two men and in some cases, even aided their criminal activities.
In 2007, a federal judge ruled that the FBI was responsible for the deaths of Michael Donahue and Brian Halloran, and two years later a different judge handed down the $8.4 million judgment.
Donahue and Halloran were killed after former FBI agent John Connolly, Jr., told Bulger that Halloran was going to implicate him in a murder. Bulger and another member of the gang carried out the hit on Halloran, shooting him some 22 times as he screamed in pain. Donahue was an innocent bystander who merely happened to offer Halloran a ride home on the fateful night, and was shot in the head as he tried to dodge the spray of bullets.
While the three-judge appellate panel accepted the government’s position that the wrongful death claims were filed after the statute of limitations had expired, they took pains to point out that they found the FBI’s conduct in the case to be “reprehensible” and the actual murders the result of “an unholy alliance”.
“We are not without sympathy for the plaintiffs’ plight,” Judges Bruce Selya wrote for the court on Thursday. “The murders robbed both the Donahue and Halloran families of loved ones, and their losses were exacerbated by years of government evasion.
“But statutes of limitations are designed to operate mechanically,” the ruling continues. “They aspire to being a sense of finality to events that occurred in the distant past and to afford defendants the comfort of knowing that state claims cannot be pursued.”
In this case, the statute of limitations ran out in September 2000.
The opinion notes that the FBI considered Bulger and Flemmi “Top Echelon” informants, and that their government handlers, including Connolly, “did everything in their power, whether legal or illegal, to protect their prized informants and keep them happy.
“In the bargain,” Selya wrote, “the agents blithely ignored FBI guidelines and permitted Bulger and Flemmi to carry out a constellation of criminal activities, ranging from loan-sharking to extortion to murder.”
In 2002, FBI agent Connolly was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for racketeering and obstruction of justice in his relationship with Bulger, Flemmi and the Winter Hill Gang.
Attorney William E. Christie, who represents Halloran’s estate, has already said he would appeal the decision by the Feb. 24 deadline. Attorneys for the Donahue family have not indicated what they will do.