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Defense team tackles high-stakes case with zeal

In defending James “Whitey” Bulger, J.W. Carney Jr. (left) and Hank Brennan face the challenge of getting jurors to forget their client’s much-publicized reputation.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

In defending James “Whitey” Bulger, J.W. Carney Jr. (left) and Hank Brennan face the challenge of getting jurors to forget their client’s much-publicized reputation.

The response was swift.

Federal prosecutors, in a barrage of court filings recently in the case of James “Whitey” Bulger, had asked a judge to ban the notorious gangster’s defense team from briefing news reporters outside the Moakley courthouse in South Boston.

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But defense lawyers J. W. Carney Jr. and Hank Brennan would have none of it, barking back in their own filing only hours later that every defendant had a right to be heard, regardless of their alleged crimes, and they would not let the government interfere.

“James Bulger and his attorneys will not be bullied by the federal government. They will continue to pursue the truth,” the lawyers argued, at one point quoting Thomas Jefferson.

They continued, “In United States v. Bulger, federal prosecutors continue to misuse their power in an attempt to bully the individual and stifle civil liberties . . . they are trying to deprive the public of its right to know the truth about the perfidy of the United States government.”

Any lawyer would have had the obligation to respond to the government’s filings, but few, according to legal observers, would have done it with the same venom and zeal as Brennan and Carney, who was initially appointed to represent Bulger after his arrest in June, 2011. Both willingly, if not enthusiastically, took the case.

“Being defense lawyers is just the very part of them,” said Sejal Patel, an attorney who worked alongside both of them, and who partnered partnered with Carney in a high-profile terrorism case.

“The chemistry between the two of them is just really a great combination,” she said. “They both have wisdom, but in very different ways, and so in that way there will be a good synergy.”

Carney, 61, of the Boston firm Carney & Bassil, is well-versed in high-profile trials. He has been described repeatedly as the patron saint of hopeless cases for his willingness to defend any client, regardless of public opinion or how challenging the case.

His clients include Tarek Mehanna, an American convicted of terrorism, and John Salvi, who shot up two Brookline abortion clinics in 1994, killing two workers and injuring others.

Carney and Brennan — a private lawyer who works with the firm — have also had surprising successes in other cases, such as getting charges reduced when first-degree murder convictions initially seemed inevitable. One of Carney’s clients was Kenneth Seguin, of Holliston, who killed his two young children and bludgeoned his wife in 1992 as she slept. He was convicted only of second degree murder, after Carney raised an insanity defense.

And Brennan, 44, was part of the team that defended Mark Kerrigan, brother of figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, in the death of their father. Charged with manslaughter, he was convicted of assault and battery.

Legal observers, though, note that Bulger’s case is at another scale of complexity, and nothing but a complete acquittal will be enough to insulate Bulger from his legacy as an alleged murderer who ratted on his cohorts as a secret informant for the FBI.

“I think they’re prepping for a Super Bowl trial, where the pressure is on a defense lawyer to stand alone between a charged citizen who has enormous toxic press, and the government, which is relentlessly committed to his conviction,” said Martin Weinberg, who has defended high-profile clients, and who has often won acquittals such as the successful defense two years ago of financial consultant Richard Vitale in a political corruption case.

Weinberg said the team’s challenge will be in convincing jurors to forget Bulger’s reputation as a notorious crime figure. But they will also have an advantage in the cross-examination of some of Bulger’s alleged cohorts, who are the government’s key witnesses.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” Weinberg said. “This is not a case where the defense is seeking compromise. Jay and Hank are both experienced criminal lawyers who have devoted 18 months of their professional lives to get ready for the biggest case of their careers.”

Both lawyers are firmly established in criminal defense circles.

Carney founded his own law firm with partner Janice Bassil in 1989. A former prosecutor, he has told the story of the wrongful conviction of a man in a rape case who served 19 years before he was vindicated by DNA evidence. Carney has used the case to explain his determination to defend clients at any cost.

Brennan was a former prosecutor in Essex and Suffolk counties, before forming his own practice. He partnered with Bassil in the Kerrigan trial, and in a successful insanity defense in a murder case. They also secured the acquittal of a former prosecutor, Gary Zerola, in two rape cases. Zerola was once named one of People magazine’s “most eligible” bachelors.

“To those who don’t know him, they will after this trial,” said Joseph Krowski Jr., a Brockton-based defense attorney who worked as a prosecutor with Brennan in the late 1990s.

“Hank goes into every case thinking he can win and will do everything in his power humanly possible to achieve that goal,” Krowski said. “He will know every single detail of all of the evidence in that case. He just simply won’t be outworked by anyone.”

Bassil, who often partners with Brennan on cases, said she had urged him and Carney to collaborate on the Bulger case, saying, “I knew that he could shoulder the burden of such a difficult case with Jay.”

And on regular occasions since then, Bassil said, she has left the office while Carney and Brennan were just starting strategy meetings.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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