BOSTON (Reuters) - A lawyer for accused Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger said a newspaper column on Friday by a journalist named as a potential witness in his trial for 19 murders was a “scathing attack” that could prejudice jurors.
Bulger’s defense this week took the unusual step of listing journalists, including Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen and reporter Shelly Murphy, on its list of 82 potential witnesses.
U.S. District Judge Denise Casper on Friday rejected the defense’s request to keep the Boston Globe journalists out of the trial. It is normal practice to exclude witnesses but this would have prevented them from covering the proceedings. She said the journalists have a right to be present throughout the trial, scheduled to begin next Wednesday.
Cullen’s column gave a taste of what his testimony could be if called to the stand.
“The idea that we could provide exculpatory evidence for Whitey is a joke,” Cullen wrote. “I believe Whitey Bulger is a deeply cynical and vicious criminal who made millions by killing and intimidating people while he was protected by a deeply corrupted FBI.”
Bulger’s attorneys argued in court papers filed on Friday that the column will only add to the challenge of finding jurors who have not yet formed an opinion on the case. Bulger’s story inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Academy Award-winning movie “The Departed,” and several scenes in the movie were filmed within blocks of the city’s waterfront federal courthouse.
“It is not an exaggeration to assert that anyone who reads that column will be disqualified as a juror,” attorney J.W. Carney of the Boston law firm Carney & Bassil wrote. “He is not content to report news; instead, he launches a scathing attack.”
Bulger, 83, is Boston’s most notorious living gangster, and his story has fascinated the city for decades. Typically in criminal trials, judges instruct jurors to avoid media reports on the case.
Bulger has pleaded not guilty to all charges and he faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
Bulger is accused of running the city’s “Winter Hill” gang in the 1970s and 80s, a role he protected by working with corrupt FBI officials, including one who tipped him off in 1994 that arrest was imminent.
That tip caused Bulger to flee the city and he lived in hiding for 16 years, most of them on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list, before he was arrested in a seaside apartment in California in June 2011.
More than 800 potential jurors have been called to U.S. District Court in Boston this week, from which attorneys for each side are working to select a jury of 12 and six alternates.
The defense argued that the journalists might be called on to testify if other witnesses, including Bulger’s criminal associates, victims and law enforcement personnel, make comments on the stand that conflict with what they have previously told the media.
Lawyers for the Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Co, argued earlier that calling journalists as witnesses would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of the press. Witnesses in criminal trials are typically not allowed to attend those parts of a trial where they are not testifying.
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Grant McCool and Richard Chang