In the first offering of his defense strategy, the attorney for James “Whitey” Bulger told jurors in the high-profile trial Wednesday that, yes, his client had sold drugs and, yes, his client had extorted money.
But J.W. Carney Jr. sought to make this clear: Bulger did not kill women, and he certainly was not an informant.
“James Bulger is of Irish descent, and the worst thing that an Irish person could consider doing was becoming an informant because of the history of the Troubles in Ireland,” Carney told jurors in opening statements in Bulger’s long-awaited trial in federal court.
Ticking off a list of crimes that were committed and crimes that were not, the attorney seemed to be arguing just as much about Bulger’s reputation as he was the allegations in the case, said legal observers, who added that Carney’s full strategy appears yet to unfold in a complex cast that could last four months.
“I think there could be Stage 2, 3, 4, and 5 in this” defense, said prominent Boston defense attorney Martin Weinberg, who has represented a who’s who in political corruption and organized crime cases, including John Martorano, a former Bulger associate who may testify against Bulger in the trial.
By admitting to certain crimes, such as drug dealing, the legal analysts surmised, Bulger could be trying to raise his credibility with jurors as he argues that he did not commit murders and that he was not an informant.
“What he’s saying is ‘my guy was a certain type of criminal, but he didn’t have a need to go outside that comfort zone and do any of the things [government witnesses] are saying he did,” said Gerard T. Leone, a former federal prosecutor and Middlesex district attorney who has been watching the trial.
“That’s where the battle lines have been drawn,” he said.
But by admitting to the lesser crimes, Bulger could also be sealing his conviction, promising that he will die in a federal prison.
Paul Kelly, also a former federal prosecutor who has represented the family of one of Bulger’s alleged victims and a former FBI agent on the witness list, said, “What’s important to [Bulger] is his legacy, and he doesn’t want to be remembered as an informant who snitched on others, whether they be organized crime figures or others. And he doesn’t want to be a man who committed heinous crimes against women.”
But, Kelly said, “He has no problem being looked at as a tough gangster who engaged in drug dealing, loan sharking, racketeering, and the other crimes he’s charged with.”
Bulger, 83, was Boston’s most notorious gangster when he fled a racketeering indictment in 1995, after he was tipped off by his corrupt FBI handler, John J. Connolly Jr. Bulger was later charged in a more sweeping indictment in 2000 alleging 19 murders after his former associates began cooperating and agreed to testify against him in exchange for reduced prison sentences.
Among the government’s witnesses is hitman Martorano, who served 12 years for 20 murders, but began cooperating with the FBI after learning that Bulger was an informant.
Kevin Weeks served five years in prison after pleading guilty to being an accessory to five murders and after leading investigators to the graves of some of Bulger’s alleged victims.
Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, Bulger’s closest associate, escaped the death penalty after pleading guilty to 10 murders and agreeing to testify against Bulger.
In his opening statements Wednesday, Carney argued that the allegations of murder against Bulger are based on the words of three former associates, and he asked jurors, “Would you believe them beyond a reasonable doubt?”
“I think he’s basically putting the government on trial and just hoping the prosecution lacks in integrity, because of the witnesses,” Leone said.
Carney said that Bulger was comfortable running rackets in Boston, aided by corrupt law enforcement officials, and said he had no interest leaving his “comfort zone.”
“He was making millions and millions of dollars,” Carney said. “He had nothing, no interest, no motivation, no reason to go out of his comfort zone and ever get involved in anything in Florida.”
He also said Bulger was never an informant, but instead paid corrupt law enforcement officials for information.
Bulger could face a lengthy prison sentence and ultimately die in prison, if convicted of any of the charges he faces.
“He’s got to be the only 83-year-old defendant who in essence confessed to crimes that would put him in jail for the rest of his life,” said Weinberg.
But legal observers also agreed that Bulger could be trying to make a statement by trying to convince jurors and the public that even if he committed other crimes, he never committed murder.
“They’d probably consider it to be a huge victory, because frankly it would be,” Leone said.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.