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Whitey Bulger trial opens with startling statement from defense (+video)

The trial of James 'Whitey' Bulger began Wednesday, with the defense admitting Mr. Bulger was a criminal, but saying he was not guilty of two key murders and did not act as an informant.

By Staff writer / June 12, 2013

This 1980 surveillance photo shows James 'Whitey' Bulger with another man at a Lancaster Street garage in Boston's North End. It was presented as evidence during the first day of a trial for Mr. Bulger in US District Court in Boston Wednesday.

US Attorney's Office/AP

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It’s a trial where both sides agree that James “Whitey” Bulger is a big-time criminal. And both sides agree that his long-time success in Boston’s underworld can be attributed in good measure to public corruption, such as police officers and FBI agents on the take from Mr. Bulger and his associates.

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Prosecutors said James "Whitey" Bulger was the center of mayhem and murder in Boston for thirty years. While Bulger's defense attorney acknowledged his client did commit some crimes, he insisted Bulger was not a murderer or a government snitch.

Beyond that, though, the trial that opened Wednesday leaves more than just some shades of gray to be resolved.

Was Bulger a “hands-on killer,” as prosecutor Brian Kelly alleged in his opening statement? And was Bulger a willing informant to the FBI, even as he disparaged “rats” and retaliated violently against them?

Or, as the defense contends, is he being framed by former criminal colleagues whose self-interest lies in shifting blame onto him? And will the trial end up conveying as much about corruption within law enforcement as it does about Bulger’s own activities?

This is a blockbuster trial that will address those questions and more, related to a man who eluded authorities for 16 years after his indictment, which charged him with murdering 19 people. For years Bulger topped the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list as an alleged crime boss, even as the agency also carried a file on him as a “top echelon” informant against other mobsters.

Although Bulger has pleaded “not guilty” to 32 criminal counts in this federal case, lead defense attorney Jay Carney’s opening statement included some startling words.

“Bulger was involved in criminal activities in Boston,” Mr. Carney said, mentioning loan-sharking, illegal sports betting, and drug dealing as examples. “That’s what he did.”

And Bulger was able to make “millions upon millions” by conducting these activities and by giving generous payments to corrupt police and FBI personnel, Carney added.

Where does that line of defense lead?

First, it’s an effort cast doubt on law-enforcement witnesses, by suggesting that it was only through rampant corruption that Bulger was able to avoid indictment for so long.

Second, the defense will seek to dismantle the credibility of Bulger’s former colleagues as witnesses. (Carney implied that they’ve lightened their own punishments by being ready to tell lies about Bulger and his former FBI handler, John Connolly.)

Third, Carney appears set to cast Bulger as a bad guy, but not that bad a guy – not guilty, for instance, of all 19 alleged murders.

If successful, that defense could not only lighten Bulger’s sentence but perhaps keep alive some fragment of the legend – once believed by some locals – that he was a kind of Robin Hood gangster, looking out for his community even as he profited from its seamier side.

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