Whitey Bulger trial opens with startling statement from defense

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.

US Attorney's Office/AP
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.

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.

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.

Carney said in his opening remarks that Bulger was not an informant, and that he is not guilty of killing the two women listed by prosecutors among the alleged murder victims.

For the prosecution, however, the case is all about bringing to justice the alleged leader of a major crime ring, who reaped his millions through a reign of terror.

“At the center of all this murder and mayhem is one man – the defendant in this case,” Mr. Kelly of Boston’s US Attorney’s office said, at the start of what’s expected to be a months-long trial.

He sketched some of the vivid and gruesome details the prosecution will present in making its case.

Kelly alleged that Bulger shot one victim in the back of the head – after mining him for information about rival criminals and taking $50,000 of his money – and then sat on a couch while associates buried the man in a residential basement.

Kelly said one witness and former Bulger associate recalls moving three decaying corpses from the house basement to be buried in a field – on Halloween of all nights – so the house could be sold.

On Day 1 of the trial the prosecution also showed visual evidence: a photo of Bulger-linked machine guns, an image of an alleged extortion payment (by check) for $200,000, and video showing Bulger conferring with associates and making motions with his arms and fists as if describing physical violence.

With Bulger on the run for 16 years after being indicted, his alleged crimes date back to an era of grainy black-and-white surveillance videos by law enforcement and a “Southie” section of Boston that was still a rough part of town dominated by Irish-Americans.

Carney said up front that the defense faces a “challenging task.”

He said he'll try to show "what happens in the prosecutors’ kitchen,” referring to the way that prosecutor goals – and the way those are perceived by witnesses interested in lighter punishment – can influence what witnesses say.

Carney said Bulger’s ties with FBI Agent John Connolly involved paying for information, not serving as an informant. This could become an important matter of contention during the trial, since some witnesses are former Bulger associates have also testified against Connolly (citing his relationship with Bulger) in the past.

Carney suggested that to become an informant was anathema to Bulger, since to “rat” went against the code of his Irish heritage.

Bulger is reportedly also eager to have the jury find him not guilty regarding the killings of two women in the 1980s.

While making no comment during his opening statement about most of the alleged murders, Carney sought to cast doubt regarding some of them – including the allegation that Bulger strangled Debra Davis (a girlfriend of his alleged crime partner, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi) and Deborah Hussey (Mr. Flemmi’s stepdaughter) during the 1980s.

He asserted that Bulger had no motive in those murders, while Flemmi did.

The trial promises to pack some emotion along with Boston-mob intrigue.

Victims’ family members will be among the witnesses. Bulger himself may take the stand to rebut murder-related testimony by Flemmi. The two men, once “inseparable” as partners according to one witness who testified Wednesday, haven’t been in the same room for years.

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