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Whitey Bulger’s lawyers oppose criminal background checks of jurors

Attorneys for James “Whitey” Bulger today said they do not want federal prosecutors conducting criminal history checks on prospective jurors in Bulger’s upcoming racketeering and murder trial in US District Court in Boston.

In court papers filed today, attorneys J.W. Carney Jr. and Henry Brennan said the request made Thursday by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office is a waste of court resources. Moreover, they wrote, the existence of a criminal record, by itself, should not be a bar to jury service.

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“There is no compelling reason as to why the Court should verify criminal background information provided by the juror,’’ the attorneys wrote in a six-page memo. “One’s criminal record is no more relevant to the juror’s fitness to serve on the jury than any of the other inquiries into the juror’s background.’’

The attorneys also said that when a witness takes a stand they swear they will tell the truth, and prospective jurors make the same pledge when they fill out their questionnaires. Both face prosecution for perjury if they lie under oath or lie on the paperwork, the lawyers wrote.

“The information provided by potential jurors is provided under the pains and penalty of perjury, an assurance of honesty that is deemed sufficient for trial testimony and other courtroom proceedings,’’ Carney and Brennan wrote. “Surely, this assurance is also sufficient for the voir dire of potential jurors in this case.’’

On Thursday, federal prosecutors asked US District Court Judge Denise Casper, who will preside at Bulger’s June trial, to let them run criminal history checks on those jurors who make it past initial screening and are on the verge of being chosen for the panel of 12 jurors and six alternates to sit for the entirety of the months-long trial.

In their motion, prosecutors noted that in another high-profile case in Boston in 2011, a federal judge set aside a jury’s verdict recommending the death penalty for convicted carjacker and killer Gary Lee Sampson after it was later discovered that a juror failed to disclose information during jury selection. An Appeals Court is now weighing the government’s request to reinstate the verdict.

A spokesman for the US District Court in Boston said the court does not conduct criminal background checks of prospective jurors.

“The default position is we trust the citizens to fill out the form truthfully,” he said.

Bulger, 83, is charged in a federal racketeering indictment that alleges he participated in 19 murders. Jury selection is scheduled to begin June 6.

Prosecutors said the way to prevent a Sampson-like problem in the Bulger case is to do the research now, not later.

But Bulger’s attorneys said the issue raised years later about the Sampson juror, known as Juror C, did not involve a criminal record but was instead the juror’s failure to honestly report that she had been the victim of domestic violence at the hands of her former husband.

“Conducting a criminal background check on Juror C would not have yielded the information that led the district court to reverse the conviction,’’ Bulgers lawyers wrote.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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