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When there's a fugitive in the family

Like most of the country, I was fascinated last week with the capture of notorious Irish-American gangster Whitey Bulger, the South Boston crime boss/informant who was on the lam for 17 years. Everything about the story was high drama, but what really struck me was the way the media romanticized Whitey's devoted brother, Bill.

A former president of the Massachusetts Senate, Bill Bulger was forced to resign as president of the University of Massachusetts in 2003, after he revealed he had communicated with his fugitive brother.

"I don't feel an obligation to help everyone to catch him," he once told a grand jury.

In the news coverage and in the conversations I had following the gangster's arrest, many people seemed to not only accept, but applaud the brother's fierce family loyalty, as if brotherly bonds trump even a 21-death reign of terror.

Is blood so thick that selling out your brethren is a worse sin than killing someone? Or is there honor in severing familial bonds in order to save more lives, as David Kaczynski undoubtedly did when he helped police apprehend his brother, the Unabomber, in 1996 and put an end to a 20-year mail bombing spree?

Would you cover up or take the blame for a family member who committed a crime? Would you lie to protect him? Help her conceal the crime?

Or do you subscribe to "do the crime, do the time" philosophy, and see yourself reporting him or encouraging her to face the consequences?

Remarkably, in 14 states (including our own), family members cannot be prosecuted for harboring fugitives, regardless of the nature of the crime or the extent of the family member's involvement, according to the book Privilege or Punish: Criminal Justice and the Challenge of Family Ties, written in 2009 by law professors Ethan Leib, Dan Markel and Jennifer Collins.

Florida forbids prosecution of spouses, parents, grandparents, children, or grandchildren for helping an "offender avoid or escape detection, arrest, trial, or punishment," with one important exception; the exemption does not apply if the primary offender is alleged to have committed child abuse or murder of a child under the age of 18, "unless the court finds that the person [claiming the exemption] is a victim of domestic violence."

While there are some members of my family I'd turn in for a traffic ticket, there are others I would pause and consider protecting, especially my own kids. In the end, I think I'd do what my mother, who's always had a clear view of right and wrong, would probably do: talk them into turning themselves in. If your son or daughter did the unthinkable and showed up on your doorstep, what would you do?