After 16 years on the run and two years after his arrest, former Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger is set to go on trial in Boston Federal Court for his alleged involvement in 19 murders and other crimes.
Bulger, 83, was the head of the Winter Hill Gang, an Irish-American criminal organization based in South Boston. He was also an FBI informant, and Boston federal prosecutors are expected to contend at trial that rogue FBI agents helped Bulger elude authorities during his 16 years on the lam by giving him information on the bureau’s manhunt.
The notorious former mobster spent 12 years on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list since being indicted in 1994. He was captured in June 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., where Bulger was living with his girlfriend, Catherine Grieg (Grieg was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2012 for aiding Bulger during his time on the run.)
The gangster's trial started earlier this week, with his case in its second day of jury selection on Wednesday. But the trial will really start in earnest with opening arguments, which are expected to begin sometime next week and as early as Monday.
U.S. District Court Judge Denise J. Casper, who is presiding over the Whitey Bulger trial, has been telling prospective jurors the following: “Both parties are entitled to a jury that is fair and impartial, one with no bias and no prejudice,” she said, according to the Boston Globe. “The jury is essential to the administration of justice under our system of law in the United States.”
About 225 potential jurors were given questionnaires on the second day of jury selection. Nearly 675 possible jurors comprise the pool, which will be narrowed down to 12 jurors and six alternate jurors by the time opening arguments start. Individual jurors are expected to be questioned Thursday by prosecutors and Bulger's attorneys.
Prosecutors allege Bulger took part in 19 murders during the 1970s and 1980s. The former South Boston mobster is also charged with other racketeering crimes, including extortion, weapons charges and money laundering. He pleaded not guilty to the charges during his arraignment.
As is typical in mob trials, Bulger’s lawyers are expected to argue that prosecution witnesses, including former hit man John Martarano and ex-Winter Hill Gang member Kevin Weeks, cannot be viewed as credible.
"The government now offers these men as witnesses against James Bulger with no apparent regard for their complete lack of credibility," Bulger’s attorneys, J.W. Carney Jr. and Hank Brennan, wrote in court papers.
Despite prosecutors’ characterization of Bulger as a ruthless killer, the former mobster is admired in some areas of Boston, where he was seen as a Robin Hood-style figure who protected his neighborhood from other criminals. Bulger was also known to hand out turkey dinners to the people of South Boston on Thanksgiving.
Dick Lehr, the author of “Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss,” said that dichotomy explains why the Whitey Bulger trial will be one of the most closely watched cases in recent history. "The many faces of Whitey make him intriguing," Lehr told the Associated Press.
While the trial will be filled with intrigue, some aspects of the Bulger case will differ from other high-profile mob cases. Don't expect jurors to be sequestered, or for prosecution witnesses to have a change of heart in taking the stand out of fear of retaliation from Bulger. That's partially because of the time that has elapsed since the murders were carried out and the beginning of the Bulger trial.
Bulger's "most important cohorts have turned into government witnesses. Once they learned Whitey was a rat, they've all turned on him -- having felt betrayed by their boss -- so there's no loyalty there," Lehr said, referring to Bulger's status as an FBI informant. "In terms of public fear of gang retaliation, there's nothing there."