The federal judge who oversaw hearings in the late 1990s that exposed James “Whitey” Bulger’s corrupt relationship with the FBI agreed Thursday to release some of the confidential documents in the case to Bulger’s lawyers, as they prepare for the gangster’s upcoming trial.
Lawyers for Bulger argued that the documents undoubtedly relate to the gangster and said that they could support his claim that he was offered immunity from prosecution for his cooperation decades ago.
“I expect the documents will provide further evidence that James Bulger had a blank check to commit any crimes he wanted to in the ’70s and ’80s, leading up to the early ’90s,” said J.W. Carney Jr., Bulger’s lead lawyer.
The documents were part of the hearings that US District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf held more than a decade ago after Bulger’s former colleague, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, said he could not be prosecuted because he and Bulger were working as informants.
Their codefendants in turn argued that they could not be charged for participating in a conspiracy that was headed by people, Bulger and Flemmi, who were secretly working for the FBI, and Wolf held a series of hearings that ultimately exposed the corrupt relationship, one of the darkest times in the Boston FBI’s history.
One well-known defense lawyer who was involved in the hearings in the 1990s said that Bulger’s defense team could also be searching for any information that could impeach the credibility of Bulger’s former codefendants, who now plan to testify against him.
“I think he’s exploring, and that’s his function,” said Martin Weinberg, who represented John Martorano, a hit man. Martorano ultimately confessed to 20 murders and served a reduced prison sentence in a deal with prosecutors after he learned that Bulger and Flemmi had been serving as informants all along.
“There was an enormous amount of materials that were publicly disclosed during the many months of hearings [in the 1990s], and there was unique public interest,” said Weinberg. “I’m sure his client wants to know what wasn’t publicly disclosed and why.”
Wolf said he would release some of the documents in the case and said some of the information may remain redacted, to protect the privacy of witnesses and confidential informants. “There . . . are safety issues implicated,” Wolf said.
The judge said he was also weighing whether to force anyone who receives the documents to sign an affidavit declaring that they would not share the materials with anyone, though he indicated lawyers would still be able to discuss the documents and show them to witnesses without the need for an affidavit.
Carney had argued that he should be able to discuss the documents freely with potential witnesses without them needing to sign a form. He said many witnesses in the case needed their memories refreshed and that some were reluctant to sign any documents out of fear of government retribution. “They don’t want to have their names memorialized as having anything to do with this case,” he said.
Federal prosecutors had agreed that some of the documents could be turned over to Bulger’s lawyers under certain conditions, such as not being given to anyone outside the defense team.
Bulger, 83, was one of America’s Most Wanted until his arrest in June 2011 after more than 16 years on the lam. He fled just before his indictment in 1995, after his corrupt FBI handler tipped him off.
Wolf’s hearings led to a new racketeering indictment accusing Bulger of participating in 19 murders.
The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is considering a request by Bulger to force the judge overseeing the case to step aside, saying US District Court Judge Richard Stearns was a prosecutor at the time of Bulger’s alleged crimes and that he has a conflict of interest. Stearns has refused to recuse himself.