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Prosecutors request checks of jurors in Bulger trial

Federal prosecutors asked a judge Thursday to grant them permission to conduct criminal background checks of jurors at the upcoming racketeering and murder trial of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.

Prospective jurors are required to complete a lengthy questionnaire that includes questions about whether they have ever been charged or convicted of a crime, but prosecutors argued that background checks are necessary to make sure jurors are being truthful.

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In their motion, prosecutors noted that in another high-profile case in Boston in 2011, a federal judge set aside a jury’s verdict recommending the death penalty for convicted carjacker and killer Gary Lee Sampson after it was later discovered that a juror failed to disclose information during jury selection. An Appeals Court is now weighing the government’s request to reinstate the verdict.

Retired federal judge Nancy Gertner said she was unaware of any cases in US District Court in Boston where background checks had been conducted of prospective jurors, but she favored the practice if it was done in all cases and the government shared the information with the defense.

“The more information we have about the jurors the better,” Gertner said. “These are decision-makers who make critical decisions about people’s lives.”

Bulger, 83, is charged in a federal racketeering indictment that alleges he participated in 19 murders. Jury selection is scheduled to begin June 6.

“As the court is aware, trial of this matter will likely take several months, consume considerable resources, and have an obvious emotional impact on the victims,” prosecutors wrote in a four-page motion to US District Court Judge Denise Casper, who is presiding over the case. “It is thus important to take steps necessary to address potential appellate issues in the first instance.”

Prosecutors propose conducting background checks on potential jurors who have passed preliminary screening, but have yet to be seated on the panel of 12 jurors and six alternates.

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has previously ruled that criminal background checks of jurors in criminal cases are appropriate, even without prior approval by the court, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors said the background checks in Bulger’s case would ensure that a fair, impartial jury is selected, minimize the possibility of a mistrial, and “provide a basis to determine whether jurors have truthfully answered their questionnaires with respect to an important subject.”

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.
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