Daunting task: New Bulger lawyers know tough cases

BOSTON Thu Jun 30, 2011 6:46pm EDT

Accused Boston crime boss James ''Whitey'' Bulger (L) and his girlfriend Catherine are shown during their arraignment in federal court in Los Angeles, California in this June 23, 2011 courtroom sketch. REUTERS/Bill Robles/Artist

Accused Boston crime boss James ''Whitey'' Bulger (L) and his girlfriend Catherine are shown during their arraignment in federal court in Los Angeles, California in this June 23, 2011 courtroom sketch.

Credit: Reuters/Bill Robles/Artist

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BOSTON (Reuters) - Criminal defense attorney J. W. Carney Jr, named on Thursday to defend former mob kingpin and alleged murderer James "Whitey" Bulger, is no stranger to difficult or controversial cases.

A federal judge ruled that Bulger, 81, captured last week in California after 16 years on the run, was entitled to a taxpayer-funded defense. And Carney got the call.

"I was asked to represent him. And I said I would," said Carney, who is tall and bald with a white beard and glasses -- an odd echo of the appearance of his older, infamous new client. "It's a daunting task."

Carney, speaking outside the South Boston courthouse, said he would immediately move to have his partner Janice Bassil appointed as co-counsel on the Bulger case.

The pair, who founded Carney & Bassil in Boston in 1989, have been involved in some of the city's most explosive cases.

"Janice Bassil and I started as state court public defenders here in Boston in 1978. This is why we became criminal defense lawyers -- to represent people who are in trouble. As my partner Janice would say: 'This is who we are,'" Carney said.

Carney spent six years as a full-time public defender after graduating from Boston College Law School in 1978.

He was then appointed as an assistant district attorney for Middlesex County, where he led a group of prosecutors who handled the most serious cases, including murder, sexual abuse, domestic violence and drug trafficking.

The attorney has been named one of the five best private criminal defense lawyers in Massachusetts by Boston magazine, and was several times picked by peers as one of the 100 best lawyers in the state.

Among Carney's most famous cases was his defense of John Salvi, an anti-abortion fanatic.

Salvi stormed two Planned Parenthood Clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, in December 1994, killing two workers and injuring others. He was captured in Virginia in 1996 after another clinic shooting.

Named as counsel in the Salvi case, Carney used a mental health defense, arguing with the help of expert witnesses that Salvi suffered from schizophrenia. Salvi was convicted.

Carney also defended Kenneth Seguin, a computer executive from Holliston, Massachusetts, who was convicted in 1993 of killing his wife and two young children.

Bassil, who graduated from Boston University Law School, specializes in family and criminal law.

Those strands came together recently when she defended Mark Kerrigan, the brother of Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan was acquitted in May of manslaughter in the death of his 70-year-old father, who died after the two had a violent argument in the family's home last year.

"Both Janice and I have handled very complicated cases in the past. And we know how to handle them, and we're prepared to handle this one," Carney said.

Carney was asked on Thursday if it was possible to get a fair trial for the man whose exploits as a crime boss, FBI informer and as one of Americas Most Wanted fugitives have been fodder for books and movies.

"There are ways that you can ensure that a defendant is judged by a jury of his peers who do not come to trial with a preconception," he said. "Those are the people we are going to find."

(Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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