After 18 years marked by FBI scandal, an international manhunt, and the discovery of secret graves, opening statements in a trial that many thought would never happen are scheduled to begin Wednesday in the sweeping federal racketeering case against notorious South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.
A jury of eight men and four women, chosen Tuesday along with six alternates, will report to US District Court on South Boston’s waterfront for a proceeding that is expected to last through September, with gangsters, extortion victims, and relatives of the dead expected to testify about a bygone era when the 83-year-old Bulger’s name evoked power and fear.
“My nerves are in an uproar,” said Steve Davis, whose 26-year-old sister Debra was among the 19 people that Bulger is accused of killing in the 1970s and 1980s. “I never thought in my life, in my wildest dreams, that I would ever see this day. “
On Tuesday, US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper cleared the way for opening statements when she rejected a request by Bulger’s lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., to delay the start until Monday. He wanted time to conduct his own investigation of State Police handling of John Martorano, a hitman-turned-government witness who is poised to testify against Bulger. Casper found that the State Police had conducted an extensive investigation and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Moments after the word spread on social media Tuesday that the jury had been chosen and sworn in for the long-
anticipated trial, Davis said he started fielding calls from friends wishing him luck and from relatives of other victims, expressing nervousness and relief.
It was an emotional moment for the families.
“I’m having anxiety attacks here,” said Patricia Donahue, who was left to raise three sons alone after her husband, Michael, was allegedly gunned down by Bulger in 1982 while giving a ride home to someone who was the intended target. “This has been hanging over our heads for years.”
Bulger, who was captured in Santa Monica, Calif., two years ago after more than 16 years on the run, has called the trial “The Big Show” in letters to a friend from jail. Courthouse personnel are bracing for possible record crowds.
The 70 seats in the courtroom are reserved for Bulger’s family; relatives of his alleged victims; investigators; a small group of news media representatives, including two sketch artists; and members of the public, allowed in on a first-come, first-served basis. There are two overflow courtrooms, one for reporters and the other for the public, where the proceedings will be streamed live on television monitors.
Bulger is charged in 32 counts of a racketeering indictment that alleges that while running a criminal enterprise from 1972 to 2000, he participated in 19 murders; extorted bookmakers, drug dealers, and businessmen; laundered his criminal profits through real estate transactions; and stockpiled an arsenal of weapons.
“Keep an open mind,” Casper told the jury members. The jurors were selected from a pool of more than 800 people that was whittled to 70 Monday after prosecutors and defense lawyers sifted through questionnaires, flagging those with conflicts, possible bias, or hardships.
Federal prosecutors, who had been authorized to conduct criminal background checks of the 70 potential jurors remaining, told the judge Tuesday that 13 had some type of record.
“Some seem like they might be innocent oversights,” Assistant US Attorney Zachary Hafer said. But he noted others had clearly lied, including one man who had four felony convictions for selling crack cocaine, breaking and entering, and receiving stolen property.
Lawyers huddled with the judge while discussing potential jurors, so few details on the final jurors, identified in court by their numbers, were made public. Some of the more colorful people questioned a day earlier were excused, including the man who said he had been arrested for lewdness because he locked himself out of his apartment “butt naked out in the hallway.” Also dismissed was a young woman who recounted how she witnessed a shooting while smoking “weed” with people she just met.
After the newly sworn jury was excused for the day with orders not to read, tweet, post, or listen to anything about the case, Bulger’s lawyer erupted in fury during an angry courtroom confrontation with one of the prosecutors as the judge tried to assert control.
Carney accused prosecutors of failing to thoroughly investigate a state trooper’s complaint that a supervisor, Detective Lieutenant Stephen Johnson, interfered with his effort to investigate Martorano’s possible involvement in illegal gambling. Johnson was part of the team that built the case against Bulger. Martorano served 12 years in prison for 20 murders and has implicated Bulger in many of them.
“The government wants to cover this up and hide it,” bellowed Carney, who slapped the State Police with subpoenas Monday seeking internal reports on Martorano and several other former Bulger associates.
Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak said the state trooper’s complaint, initially made in an anonymous letter, had been discredited. Then he fired back at Carney, accusing him of being “unlawyerly” and unprofessional for attacking the government and making unsubstantiated claims to the media.
“I hope this conduct doesn’t continue,” Wyshak said.
“It will continue,” said Carney, as Bulger sat quietly by his side.
“Seriously?” said Casper. She said she had reviewed the State Police internal reports and credited police with conducting an extensive investigation that found the trooper’s claims about Johnson were false. She quashed Carney’s subpoena for the State Police records and ruled the prosecution did not have to turn them over.
Bulger’s relationship with the FBI will be a major issue in the trial. The indictment alleges that Bulger developed corrupt relationships with FBI agents, who protected him from prosecution and leaked information to him that led to the slayings of three FBI informants and a potential witness.
The Globe reported in 1988 that Bulger was an FBI informant, then nine years later the FBI acknowledged that fact when ordered by the court to disclose it. But Bulger denies he was ever an informant and insists his voluminous informant file was concocted by his handler.