BOSTON — The trial of accused Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, in which more than 20 witnesses have been called in the first two weeks, could take a new turn on Tuesday as defense lawyers challenge assertions that he was an FBI informant.
Jurors in the racketeering and murder case on Monday heard portions of the 700-page informant file the FBI developed on Bulger, who it said provided information to the bureau for more than a decade as he ran Boston’s notorious “Winter Hill” gang.
Bulger, accused of murdering or ordering the murders of 19 people in the 1970s and ’80s, pleaded not guilty to all charges. At age 83, he faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
Defense lawyers denied their client ever served as an informer for the FBI and challenged whether the court should accept that premise. Bugler’s now-disgraced FBI handler, John Connolly, is serving a prison sentence for racketeering and murder.
Bulger’s attorneys say he paid Connolly for information, but provided none of his own. If they can discredit Connolly’s files, they can undermine much of the prosecution case and redeem his image, currently as one of many members of his gang who snitched.
“It should be for the jury to decide whether they believe this person was an informant,” said defense attorney Henry Brennan, of Boston law firm Carney & Bassil.
Brennan said he planned to question whether FBI Special Agent James Marra, who on Monday described parts of Bulger’s file, really knew that Bulger was the source of the information.
“If this witness is allowed to testify in his opinion that Mr. Bulger was an informant, then I will need to test his credibility,” Brennan said in arguments held outside the jury’s’ hearing.
Prosecutors voiced exasperation that the defense would question a file they said was the result of many meetings between Bulger and FBI officials, including Connolly, his boss John Morris, who is scheduled to take the witness stand on Tuesday, and other FBI investigators.
“He was an informant who corrupted his handler and the department. The FBI shares some responsibility for continuing to operate Mr. Bulger as an informant over the years,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak. “It does not mean that Mr. Bulger was not an informant.”
Bulger’s story has fascinated Boston for decades. He was one of two brothers to rise from gritty South Boston to positions of power — James as a feared gangster, his brother William as the powerful speaker of the state senate.
“Whitey” Bulger fled the city after a 1994 tip from Connolly that arrest was imminent. He spent 16 years evading arrest, many of them on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, before authorities arrested him in a seaside apartment in Santa Monica, California, a little more than two years ago.
His story inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Academy Award-winning film “The Departed,” in which Jack Nicholson played a character loosely based on Bulger.