The long-awaited trial of James “Whitey” Bulger is set to begin Tuesday with the daunting task of finding 18 impartial jurors in a pool of 675, an extraordinary number to choose from that reflects the first challenge of the complex case.
Given the epic nature of Bulger’s life, it is likely that all the potential jurors will have at least heard his name or perhaps even known him or his cohorts — or his alleged victims — legal observers said.
“The question is, ‘Based on what you know, do you feel you can be fair,’ ” said Dan Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University. “Almost everyone in Boston is going to know about it. The goal is to find anyone who is impartial.”
The last time so many prospective jurors were called in was for the sentencing stage for serial killer Gary Lee Sampson, according to legal observers. That was to determine whether he should receive the death sentence. And it took weeks to empanel a jury.
US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper has set a tight deadline for picking a final jury in the Bulger case, scheduling opening statements for next Monday. While completing jury selection by then is seen as highly unlikely, the goal is a sign that the judge is determined to move the case along, legal observers say.
“It will be fascinating to see if she can do it . . . but it tells you she wants to run a tight ship,” said Jeffrey T. Frederick, director of jury research services for the National Legal Research Group and a writer of books on the selection process.
The lawyers involved in the case, he said, “better be focused on what you want asked or how you want to run things, because she’s basically running the clock on you.”
Bulger’s trial is set to be the climactic end to a decades-long crime story, perhaps the most notorious in Boston’s history. His reputation for alleged acts of murder and terror and his corrupt relationship with the FBI have already become the storyline for movies and books, putting pressure on lawyers and the judge to keep the trial separate from any fiction jurors may have heard before.
At a recent hearing, Casper outlined her strategy for jury selection: She will divide the pool of 675 jurors, drawn from Eastern Massachusetts, into three batches of 225. She will introduce herself, the lawyers, Bulger, and the case to the first batch of jurors Tuesday morning and then will have them fill out a 13-page questionnaire, to screen their background and potential conflicts in sitting on the panel. She will repeat the process Tuesday afternoon and again Wednesday morning with the third batch.
During that time, and into Wednesday evening, prosecutors and defense lawyers will be screening the completed questionnaires to determine whether anyone demonstrates any immediate reason to be excluded from the panel: Whether he or she knows Bulger’s family or any of the key witnesses, for example, or whether they have any particular interest in the case.
“Have you formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence of James “Whitey” Bulger with respect to the charges in this case?” goes one question.
Jurors who pass this first stage of the process will be called back to the court beginning Thursday to take part in more in-depth interviews with lawyers and prosecutors.
“What the lawyers are trying to figure out is, who the people are, and for whom you need to dig deeper,” said Edward P. Schwartz, a former law professor and a litigation and jury consultant with the national law firm TrialGraphix. “You need to keep your eyes out for people who have certain answers who raise red flags.”
Anyone who seems to defer to the rules of the court might be favorable to the prosecution, he said. Anyone who opposes drug laws might be preferred by the defense.
“It’s not even the answers they give, but the way they provide answers that might give you insight into their lives,” he said.
Casper has also approved a prosecution request to conduct criminal background checks on potential jurors.
Ultimately, Casper hopes to clear at least 40 jurors she considers suitable to serve on the jury, meaning they have no conflict or bias in serving on the panel.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers can then object to a total of 22 jurors based on legal strategies, but Casper plans to select a final panel of 18 – 12 jurors and six alternates.
In addition to the issue of whether they have heard of Bulger and can remain impartial, jurors will also have to address another key consideration – whether they can serve on a lengthy trial in the middle of the summer.
Lawyers in the case expect the trial could last three months, with testimony going into September. Casper said she plans to hold court sessions from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily, with testimony extended to 3:30 p.m. one day a week, expected to be Thursdays.
Jurors will have to claim a hardship in arguing they could not serve for so long, for instance a medical condition or planned activities such as a wedding. Jurors may also claim they could not afford to go so long without working.
The length of the trial itself could shape what type of person will end up on the jury, legal observers said.
“Who are the people who can afford to spend the summer doing this anyway?” said Schwartz. “It’s one thing to miss a couple of days of work, but what judge is going to make someone miss their mortgage payment or not be able to put food on someone’s table to cover this?”
But he and other legal observers said that Casper will have to draw a thin line between a legitimate hardship and an excuse to escape jury service if she intends to sit a jury of 18 people.
“It’s really going to depend on how strict the judge is going to be,” Frederick said.
Also, the lawyers will have to be wary of anyone too willing to serve on the jury.
“In big cases like this, there are people who are drawn to it and may want to be part of the case,” Medwed said. “You have to be careful about the attention-seekers.”
On a recent day outside the John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse in South Boston, at least two Massachusetts residents had their own take on the trial.
Christin Swartz, a 36-year-old mother from the South Shore, said she could not endure a three-month trial.
“It’s just too detailed for me,” she said. “It would definitely be interesting, just too much.”
But Adam Dani, a 31-year-old financial adviser from Framingham, said sitting on the case would be witnessing history.
“There are few cases that have this significance in Boston, with the FBI scandal,” he said. “It would be easy to have an open mind, because no one knows what the story is.”