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Bulger defense seeks limits on family testimony

Lawyers for James “Whitey” Bulger have asked a federal judge to limit the testimony of the family members of Bulger’s alleged murder victims at his upcoming trial, saying the testimony could be “unduly prejudicial” and “would serve only to provoke an emotional response among the jury.”

Federal prosecutors have indicated they may call at least one representative of each of the families of Bulger’s alleged 19 murder victims, and the gangster’s lawyers have asked that the testimony be limited to the most basic information about the victims.

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“The court should not permit the witnesses to provide detailed accounts of their lives with each victim,” the lawyers said in a filing in federal court Thursday.

They added: “The witnesses should not be permitted to discuss the impact that the death of their loved ones had on their family. Any such testimony would be enormously prejudicial while lacking any probative value.”

The request drew a quick reaction from Tom Donahue, the son of alleged murder victim Michael Donahue, who said his mother, Patricia, is looking forward to testifying in the trial.

“I’m sure when the day comes she will be ready to testify,” said Donahue, whose father was an innocent bystander when he was gunned down in South Boston, allegedly by Bulger in 1982. Donahue was driving Brian Halloran home when both men were killed, authorities said.

“I’m actually a little disgusted,” Tom Donahue said. “It’s too bad if the emotional side will get to him and the jurors. I can see why he would want to limit that, but that’s disrespectful to the families, to be honest with you. I’m disgusted.”

The filing was part of a rush Thursday by the defense team and by prosecutors to meet a deadline US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper set for making last-minute arguments before Bulger’s long-awaited trial begins, with jury selection slated to start on June 4.

Both sides have until May 29 to respond to the arguments made Thursday. Casper scheduled a final pretrial hearing for June 3.

Bulger, 83, was one of America’s most wanted fugitives until his arrest in June 2011 in Santa Monica, Calif., after more than 16 years on the lam. He is accused in a federal racketeering trial of participating in 19 murders, as well as extortion and other crimes of violence.

The charges were filed after federal court hearings in the late 1990’s exposed a relationship he had with the FBI that allegedly allowed him to carry out crimes while secretly working as an informant.

According to court filings Thursday, Bulger’s former associates John Martorano, Kevin Weeks, and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi will be the key witnesses among a list of more than 70 who are set to testify against Bulger, in perhaps the highest-profile mob trial in recent times.

Prosecutors may also introduce some 900 to 1,000 exhibits, mostly photos of crime scenes and of Bulger during the trial, according to court records.

Among the exhibits are transcripts of a phone conversation that Bulger had from Plymouth County Correctional Facility concerning the 1975 murder of Edward Connors, a Dorchester tavern owner, prosecutors said.

The prosecutors have indicated in court filings over the last several days that they plan to introduce expert witnesses at trial who will testify about forensic evidence and of Bulger’s alleged criminal organization, and they will also introduce files about Bulger’s relationship with the FBI.

Bulger’s lawyers have denied he was an informant while arguing he had an immunity agreement with the late Jeremiah O’Sullivan, who headed an Organized Crime Strike Force that protected Bulger from federal prosecution.

Also in court records Thursday, prosecutors asked that Casper order Bulger’s lawyers to stop engaging in “media grandstanding” and spreading “false facts” in press briefings.

Bulger’s lawyers have argued in court hearings that Bulger has been convicted in books written about him and that prosecutors have spent years detailing his alleged crimes.

But prosecutors alleged that his defense team has been violating court rules by discussing the case in depth before trial.

“Defense counsel’s routine, post-hearing press conferences outside the federal courthouse are simply part of a sustained campaign to influence public opinion and color the facts for potential jurors,’’ prosecutors argued. “Defense counsel will undoubtedly keep attempting to use post-hearing press conferences to make bald assertions of false facts and to advance ever-changing defense theories.”

Bulger’s lawyers responded to the request last night by quoting Thomas Jefferson, saying: “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

“At every turn, the power of the federal government is used to bully, pressure and intimidate the citizenry,” the lawyers said, noting recent controversy over the government’s surveillance of journalists and the IRS targeting political groups.

“The federal district of Massachusetts has not escaped this alarming trend towards government overreach,” the lawyers said.

Among the additional motions filed late Thursday was a prosecution request to admit statements that three of Bulger’s alleged victims made to law enforcement before their deaths.

Prosecutors said the “cooperator relationships” that the three men had with law enforcement aroused the suspicions of Bulger and his associates and “provided the motive for their homicides, as the government’s evidence at trial will establish.”

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at MValencia@globe.com.
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