One of the newest members of the federal judiciary in Massachusetts was randomly selected Friday to preside over the complex case of James “Whitey” Bulger, who is slated to stand trial in June in a sweeping federal racketeering case alleging he participated in 19 murders.
US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper, appointed to the bench in December 2010 by President Obama, replaces a judge who was ordered to step aside by a federal appeals court Thursday because he was a high-ranking federal prosecutor in the 1980s.
Casper, 45, the first black woman to become a federal judge in Massachusetts, is also a former federal prosecutor. She served in the US attorney’s office from 1999 to 2005 and spent her last year there as deputy chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.
Bulger’s lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., declined to comment Friday about the selection of Casper. He had successfully petitioned the Appeals Court to remove Judge Richard G. Stearns from the case because Bulger says another prosecutor, now deceased, granted him immunity for all his crimes, including murder, decades ago, around the same time Stearns was working in the US attorney’s office.
Casper is stepping into a case that involves allegations that Bulger, 83, killed 19 people in the 1970s and 1980s while he was an FBI informant, protected by corrupt agents who took payoffs and leaked information to him that led to some of the slayings.
Boston lawyer Harvey Silverglate, who is not involved in the case, said Casper appears to be “a perfectly good choice,’’ since her tenure as a prosecutor began well after Bulger’s initial indictment in January 1995.
Casper graduated from Harvard Law School in 1994, the same year Bulger fled Boston after an FBI agent, John J. Connolly Jr., warned him his indictment was imminent. Bulger evaded capture for more than 16 years and was captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in June 2011.
“She is relatively new to the bench,” Silverglate said. “I actually think that’s a plus, rather than a minus. . . . I think she’s less imbued with the judicial culture that says federal prosecutors can do no wrong.”
In the questionnaire she submitted to the US Senate after being nominated for the judgeship, Casper reported that she tried a total of 11 cases before juries in US District Court and in Middlesex Superior Court during her law enforcement career.
Additionally, she wrote that she tried three misdemeanor jury trials in district courts along with numerous bench trials in district court. She also wrote that she prepared the briefs in a total of 12 appellate cases in both federal and state courts.
Casper also reported having a long-term connection to the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston and prior connections to the Women’s Bar Foundation, the Massachusetts Black Women Attorneys, the Volunteer Lawyers Project, and the Boston Bar Association.
While working with the Boston Bar Association, she participated in a task force to prevent wrongful convictions and a separate panel that focused on diversity leadership, according to the questionnaire.
During her two years on the bench, Casper has presided over more than a dozen civil and criminal cases. Earlier this month, she sentenced a Hells Angels sergeant at arms to 21 years in prison for possessing a firearm and ammunition.
Boston lawyer Michael Andrews, who has appeared before Casper since she became a federal judge, said, “She’s a very thoughtful, careful judge. She does her homework and is courteous to litigants.”
After Stearns was recused from the case, the clerk’s office randomly chose Casper from the 13 remaining federal judges sitting in Massachusetts. All but five of them are former federal prosecutors.
Casper was born in East Patchogue, N.Y., in 1968 and graduated from Wesleyan University in 1990 before attending Harvard Law School. She also worked as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County from 2007 to 2010, according to her biography at the federal judiciary website.
Casper’s former boss as a state prosecutor, Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr., said any federal judge in Boston is capable of presiding at the Bulger trial. But, he said, Casper is more than ready to meet the challenge.
“Knowing Judge Denise Casper as a former colleague, the public should be particularly confident that this case remains in very able hands,’’ Leone said in the statement.
In prior criminal and civil proceedings, Bulger has been portrayed as a longtime FBI informant who was protected by the FBI because he provided information against his rivals in the Mafia. Bulger’s lawyers say he denies he was an informant, but asserts he was granted immunity by Jeremiah T. O’Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor who died in 2009.
Bulger’s lawyers say that O’Sullivan, who was head of the New England Organized Crime Strike Force, verbally promised Bulger immunity decades ago. Stearns rejected Bulger’s request that he step aside, ruling he could be impartial and had no knowledge of investigations involving the gangster while Stearns was a federal prosecutor. He served as chief of the US attorney’s criminal division in the 1980s, during the same period that Bulger says he had immunity.
The Appeals Court ruled that a reasonable person might question Stearns’s ability to remain impartial during the trial and ordered the court to reassign the case to another judge “whose curriculum vitae does not implicate the same level of institutional responsibility described here.”
This month, Stearns ruled that Bulger could not ask jurors at his upcoming trial to consider his immunity assertion. Stearns said a prosecutor did not have the authority to give the gangster a “license to kill.”
Bulger’s lawyers said they will urge the new judge to reconsider Bulger’s request to allow his immunity claim.