The ex-FBI agent doing prison time for helping infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger murder a Miami informant won’t be freed over fears of catching the coronavirus.
A Miami-Dade judge on Monday declined to order the release of John Connolly, 79, who is serving a 40-year prison sentence at South Bay Correctional Facility.
After a hearing, Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie said she did not have the legal authority to change the sentence for Connolly, who suffers from diabetes but does not have any other pressing medical issues that might make him more at risk to catch the virus.
The judge, during the video court hearing, said that even if she had the power, she did not “see any reason given Mr. Connolly’s current situation that would warrant mitigating his sentence at his time.”
Connolly was a lauded FBI agent in the 1970s. One of his informants was Bulger, the head of violent mob called the Winter Hill Gang. Their twisted relationship became a huge scandal in Boston, and served as the loose basis for the 2006 movie “The Departed.” Later, Johnny Depp played Bulger in “Black Mass,” a 2015 film about the gangster.
Prosecutors said Connolly regularly tipped off Bulger about ongoing investigations. In the Florida case, Connolly told Bulger that an executive with a Miami jai-alai operation might cooperate in the probe of an earlier mob murder. The mobsters dispatched a hit man to fatally shoot the executive, John Callahan, whose corpse was found stuffed into a car trunk at Miami International Airport.
A Miami jury, in 2008, convicted Connolly of second-degree murder with a firearm, and he was sentenced to 40 years. He’s already finished a separate 10-year federal sentence after a Massachusetts jury convicted him of working to protect Bulger’s gang.
Florida prisons have become hot spots for COVID-19, the illness caused by the highly contagious virus. The Florida Department of Corrections have stepped up inmate testing in the past week — 623 have tested positive, including 50 at South Bay, which is run by the private company GEO Group.
Across Florida, state prison inmates have been trying to secure their releases as fears mount over the spread of the virus behind bars.
Unlike in the federal corrections system, Florida’s prison system does not have a “compassionate release” program and wardens have limited authority to free inmates. Instead, many state inmates have been trying to get medical release through the Florida Commission on Offender Review, which has only released a couple since the pandemic began.
Connolly’s lawyers turned to the state court system. Among other legal authorities, they cited a 102-year-old state law that allows a sentence to be changed because of an emergency.
The former FBI agent suffers from diabetes and also a hernia that needs to be operated on, they said. Under 1982 Florida law, and with time for good behavior, Connolly only has about two-and-a-half years left before his release, lawyers James McDonald and Craig Trocino told the judge.
“Mr. Connolly is not in good condition, at all,” McDonald said during Monday’s hearing. “He’s in a front line of being an at-risk person.”
But Connolly has not been classified a medically at-risk inmate and remains in normal prison housing, said William James Hamilton, the head administrator of South Bay Correctional.
He testified that Connolly was tested for COVID-19 at the end of last week. Although he could not divulge the results of the test, Hamilton said Connolly remains in his same prison cell — suggesting he’s tested negative. Virus-stricken inmates are being housed separately, and those who are too sick are being sent to a local hospital.
“Is it fair to say that you don’ t have any concerns about Mr. Connolly’s current status and your ability to house him appropriately?” Sayfie asked.
“At this time we do not,” Hamilton said.
Miami prosecutors Michael Von Zamft and Joel Rosenblatt opposed Connolly’s release.