BOSTON (Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Thursday that former Boston mob boss and accused murderer James “Whitey” Bulger can have a public defender, and appointed noted attorney, J. W. Carney, Jr., to the job.
Carney, regarded as one of the state’s best criminal defense lawyers, said he was up to the challenge of what is expected to be a long, grueling and complex case.
“It’s a daunting task,” Carney told reporters outside the courthouse, adding that he is prepared to assemble a team and will ask immediately that his law partner Janice Bassil is appointed as co-counsel.
Judge Marianne Bowler rejected the prosecution’s argument that Bulger, who was arrested in California on June 22, should not get publicly funded counsel in his pending trial for racketeering, 19 counts of murder and other crimes.
There was no evidence that Bulger had the means to pay for his defense, Bowler said, setting his arraignment for July 6.
Bulger, 81, is the former leader of the notorious Winter Hill Gang, a violent, mostly Irish-American organized crime operation based in Boston.
He had been sought by the authorities over murders committed in the 1970s and 1980s, many of them brutal slayings, and charges of drug dealing, extortion, money laundering and conspiracy.
Bulger, who had been on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and long-time girlfriend Catherine Greig had some $820,000 of cash on hand when they were arrested last week in California after a 16-year FBI manhunt.
According to prosecutors, Bulger and Greig were able to finance a comfortable lifestyle during their time in hiding, replete with Las Vegas gambling trips and jaunts to Mexico to buy medications.
But proceeds of criminal activities cannot be used to bankroll a defense. Bulger has said through counsel that he did not want his family to be tapped to help pay for his defense.
Bulger, in an orange prison-issue jumpsuit, was in court for Bowler’s ruling and for an earlier hearing, when a federal judge ruled on how his lengthy rap-sheet would be prosecuted.
Video footage captured by New England Cable News showed Bulger, being held in Plymouth County Jail south of Boston, arriving via helicopter at Logan International Airport before being whisked to the courthouse by SUV.
Thomas Donahue, who was eight when his father Michael was gunned down, allegedly by Bulger, in 1982, said it was “disgusting” the accused murderer was transported in such a costly manner.
Donahue said he was not surprised Bulger was appointed a public defender and said the family was ready to move forward and focus on the “horrific” charges at hand.
Judge Mark Wolf earlier allowed the government to dismiss a 1994 racketeering-focused indictment and focus on 19 murder charges contained in a separate indictment, while denying a defense bid to consolidate all the charges.
A conviction on just one count of murder in Massachusetts could send Bulger to prison for life, and authorities have said that focusing on the murder cases could bring quicker justice to the families of Bulger’s alleged victims.
Judge Wolf said it was not clear that lumping the two indictments together, as Bulger’s provisional attorney Peter Krupp requested, had any legal basis.
Outgoing attorney Peter Krupp said media coverage of every “hiccup or sneeze” in the case will make it “profoundly difficult” for Bulger to get a fair trial.
The courthouse where the proceedings have taken place is just blocks from the South Boston neighborhood that Bulger and his associates once ruled with an iron fist.
New defense counsel Carney said questions about a change of venue were premature.
Brothers William and John Bulger were seated in court during the initial hearing, as were families of some of Bulger’s alleged murder victims.
Bulger appeared to look for his brothers during the later hearing, but the bench where they had been seated was empty.
Reporting by Lauren Keiper; Editing by Ros Krasny and Jerry Norton