The hundreds of people reporting for jury duty Tuesday were startled to learn that one of Boston’s most legendary figures, and for years its most elusive, was seated just a few feet away.
“I’d like to introduce you to my client, James Bulger,” attorney J.W. Carney Jr. said with a flourish as the 83-year-old gangster slowly got to his feet, facing some 225 wide-eyed potential jurors seated in rows in the glass-enclosed jury assembly room.
“Good afternoon,” Bulger said softly, as men and women, young and old, some well-dressed and others in shorts and T-shirts, craned their necks to get a better view of the gray-haired gangster with wire-rimmed glasses. Some looked curious, others incredulous.
It was the first time Bulger appeared in court minus the orange jail-issued jumpsuit, which he will not wear during the trial because it could taint the jury’s view of him. He opted against the business garb favored by many defendants. Dressed in white sneakers, jeans, a khaki and navy-striped belt, and a long-sleeved dark shirt, Bulger looked fit as he sauntered into court with a confidence reminiscent of the way he appeared on State Police surveillance tapes from the 1980s.
As the first day of jury selection began in Bulger’s federal racketeering trial in US District Court in Boston, he was undoubtedly the center of attention at both the afternoon court session and an earlier one, where he greeted the first group of prospective jurors with a pleasant, “good morning,” drawing an enthusiastic chorus of “good morning” from the crowd.
US District Judge Denise J. Casper, who is presiding over the trial, greeted each panel with a pep talk about the importance of jury duty, a brief primer on the charges against Bulger, then broke the news that 12 jurors and six alternates culled from a jury pool of at least 675 will be hearing a case expected to last until the end of September, meaning they will have to forgo summer vacations.
“Both parties have the right to a jury that is fair and impartial, one that is not biased or partial one way or another,” Casper said. “That is, both parties are entitled to a jury that does not have its mind made up one way or the other.”
The judge said that knowledge of Bulger, who gained worldwide notoriety while on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, would not bar people from serving on the jury, as long they could put whatever they have heard aside and decide the case solely on evidence presented at trial.
“You should not assume service will be burdensome,” Casper told the group, recounting how jurors in previous trials have described it as one of the most rewarding and worthwhile experiences of their lives. But she acknowledged it will be disruptive and said she will give people who believe serving would pose an extreme hardship a chance to explain their circumstances.
However, Casper warned, “I can’t guarantee you will be excused from service because you request it.”
She said the trial clearly will be inconvenient for all jurors. The jury will sit from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Thursdays.
Bulger, who was captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in June 2011 after more than 16 years on the run, is charged in 32 counts of a racketeering indictment that alleges he participated in 19 murders in the 1970s and 1980s; extorted drug dealers, bookmakers, and businessmen; laundered his criminal profits through real estate transactions; and illegally stockpiled guns.
At the heart of the prosecution’s case is the allegation that Bulger, described by the FBI as a longtime informant, was protected from prosecution by corrupt FBI agents who took bribes and leaked information to him and fellow gangster and informant Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi that led them to kill people.
Bulger’s lawyers insist that Bulger was never an informant and that his lengthy FBI file is filled with information concocted by John J. Connolly Jr., the disgraced former agent listed as his handler.
“Mr. Bulger, like all defendants, is presumed innocent,” Casper told jurors.
The potential jurors filled out lengthy questionnaires, designed to determine whether there were any factors, such as bias or a connection to someone involved in the case, that would make them ineligible to serve.
Casper told jurors it was imperative that they answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their ability.
A couple of hundred more potential jurors are expected to report to court on Wednesday. The judge said prosecutors and defense lawyers will review the questionnaires, and then jurors who are not excused will be called back to court, some as early as Thursday, for further questioning.
The judge has authorized prosecutors to conduct criminal background checks of potential jurors who make it to the second stage of the selection process. In the final stage, prosecutors will have nine challenges and the defense will have 13, a process in which each side can excuse jurors without giving a reason.
Opening arguments could start early next week.
The judge ordered those in the jury pool not to discuss the case with anyone, including family or friends.
“Just tell them you were called for jury duty and you may need to return to the courthouse . . . nothing more,” Casper said.