'Whitey' Bulger Sentenced to Life; Victim Impact Considered

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on November 14, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

James "Whitey" Bulger will serve two life sentences plus five years in prison. For relatives of Bulger's victims, confronting the former Boston mob boss in the flesh has been a long time coming.

This week, relatives of those killed by Bulger had an opportunity to face the former gangster at his sentencing hearing and bring his 11 murder victims' stories to life.

The moment highlights the legal void victim impact statements fill, but it also demonstrates the unclear function they serve in our criminal justice system.

Meeting the Mob Man

From a procedural standpoint, Bulger's sentencing hearing was rather unremarkable. Bulger was found guilty of 11 murders and 31 racketeering counts in August. With the sentence handed down Thursday, he will now almost certainly die behind bars.

But Bulger's sentencing hearing was still significant as a vehicle for closure -- not for the mob man, but for his victims. As NPR aptly put it, the "sentencing hearing is less about Bulger than it is about them."

Victim Impact Statements

Judge Denise Casper allowed all victims' relatives who wanted to be heard the opportunity to speak, including those whose cases were not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, reports The Patriot Ledger.

A judge certainly enjoys broad discretion at the sentencing phase and may consider a slew of factors such as the defendant's background, character and conduct. But what about the victims' statements? How much, if any, weight is appropriate?

Advocates and Critics of Victim Statements

"I personally feel that it is a miscarriage of justice to sentence a defendant who has been convicted of committing a crime against another person without first hearing from the victim and taking into account the effects the crime had on the victim's life," Judge Reggie Wilson of the President's Task Force on Crime Victims once said.

Judge Wilson is not alone in harboring those sentiments. Proponents of victim impact evidence firmly believe it's a powerful tool to achieve a more accurate and just sentencing outcome and is essential to the victims' healing process.

Some legal scholars question whether victim participation in sentencing risks arbitrary decision-making, blurs the lines between civil and criminal courts, reduces judges' abilities to withstand public pressure, and increases sentencing disparities and biases based on victim attributes. Others express concern about adding additional costs to the justice system or contributing to delays. A major concern is the sentencing hearing being used for victims' purposes to the detriment of defendants' constitutional rights.

But such statements can also work to the defendant's advantage, particularly when the victims' families want to spare the defendant's life in the death penalty context.

Bulger could potentially take issue with the victim statements upon appeal, but he would likely not prevail. Notably, the First Circuit affirmed Judge Douglas Woodlock's decision allowing victims to speak at the sentencing hearing for former Bulger girlfriend Catherine Greig, reports The Ledger.

The mobster's case certainly brings to the fore the perplexing question: For whom exactly does our criminal justice system -- and sentencing hearings -- exist?

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