The long-awaited trial of James “Whitey” Bulger has been postponed again, until June 2013, following insistent complaints from his defense team that they need more time to prepare for the high-profile case.
The trial had been scheduled to begin in March. But US District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns said in a 13-page ruling Friday that he was balancing the need to promptly bring Bulger to trial with the defendant’s constitutional right to have enough time to prepare.
Stearns set jury selection to begin June 6 and for opening statements as soon as June 10. That is five months short of the November 2013 start that Bulger’s defense team had requested.
Stearns also set a schedule for prosecutors and the defense team to turn over documents in the case and to file motions, to ensure that the trial date can be met.
“The goal is to determine a task-oriented schedule that is, on the one hand, fair to the defendant in giving his counsel adequate time to prepare for trial and, on the other hand, fair to the government, the public, and the families of the alleged victims, by not unnecessarily delaying a case that they desire to be resolved as openly and expeditiously as possible,’’ Stearns wrote.
The decision was issued the same week that Bulger was briefly hospitalized, at least his second hospitalization since his arrest in June 2011. He was taken to a Boston hospital early Sunday after complaining of chest pains, though the US marshals reported he had been taken back to the Plymouth County jail by Tuesday.
Bulger, 83, was one of the nation’s most wanted fugitives until his arrest in June 2011. He had been living in the same rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, Calif., over much of his 16 years on the lam.
Years after his disappearance, federal court hearings exposed that he had been secretly working as an FBI informant while being allowed to carry out his alleged crimes, including murder. The relationship became the fodder for Hollywood movies and congressional hearings, becoming one of the darkest times in FBI history.
Bulger is accused in a federal racketeering indictment of participating in 19 murders, and he faces the death penalty.
He was arrested in California with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. She pleaded guilty earlier this year to harboring a fugitive and to identity fraud and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Bulger’s lead lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., said Friday, “We accept the judge’s decision, and will do everything in our power to be ready for the June 6 trial date.”
Prosecutors would not comment on Stearns’s decision, but have opposed any delay of the trial, saying Carney was stalling.
They also raised concerns that Bulger and witnesses in the case are aging.
This is the second time the trial has been postponed. Following Bulger’s arrest, a trial was slated for this month, until Stearns agreed to postpone it until March.
In his ruling, Stearns said he was addressing Carney’s concerns that he needed more time to prepare for trial. But he also said that prosecutors have properly turned over evidence in the case, as required.
“Defendant James Bulger was a fugitive from justice for 16 years. The racketeering enterprise . . . did not flee,” the judge said in his ruling, adding, “I also agree that there is a point at which the burden of preparing a defense becomes the responsibility of defendant’s counsel and not the government.”
The judge noted that he has allowed five lawyers to work on Bulger’s case and has granted thousands of dollars to help in that preparation.
The judge added, “The court does not have the authority or inclination, however, to issue a blank check.”