BOSTON, June 6 (Reuters) - Lawyers for James “Whitey” Bulger, the accused gangster whose story inspired the award-winning film “The Departed,” are fighting to have a half-dozen veteran Boston journalists listed as potential witnesses at his murder trial, effectively barring them from covering it.
Bulger’s lawyers have submitted a list of 82 people including journalists and top officials at the FBI that they may call as witnesses in the trial, which begins next week in U.S. District Court in Boston and is expected to last four months.
Two of the journalists are a top crime reporter and a columnist for The Boston Globe who wrote a book about the now 83-year-old Bulger. He is accused of committing or ordering 19 murders while running Boston’s “Winter Hill” crime gang in the 1970s and 80s and was on the run for 16 years.
Bulger had featured prominently on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list of fugitives before his June 2011 arrest in Santa Monica, California. His story inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Academy Award-winning film “The Departed” in which Jack Nicholson played a character loosely based on Bulger.
Lawyers for the newspaper argued that keeping the reporters on the witness list, which effectively prevents them from covering the trial, would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protecting freedom of the press.
U.S. District Judge Denise Casper is expected to rule on the witness issue before lawyers for each side present their opening statements on Wednesday. In the meantime, lawyers have spent the last few days reviewing questionnaires filled out by hundreds of prospective jurors.
Bulger’s notoriety is expected to attract crowds of spectators to court who will want to hear details of his life of crime, which includes a three year stint on the island prison of Alcatraz off the coast of San Francisco from 1959 to 1962.
Bulger has pleaded not guilty to all charges. He faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
Bulger’s attorneys argued in court papers that they may need to call the journalists as witnesses if their prior reporting contradicts the testimony of government witnesses including Kevin Weeks, a former criminal associate of Bulger; Stephen Rakes, the victim of an extortion attempt, and Thomas Foley, a former Massachusetts State Police official.
“The defendant cannot at this point predict how these government witnesses will testify,” wrote Bulger’s attorneys, led by J.W. Carney of the Boston law firm Carney & Bassil. “Any witnesses who could impeach their testimony must not be permitted to be present in court during the trial.”
Witnesses in criminal trials are typically not allowed to attend those parts of a trial where they are not testifying.
Putting reporters on a witness list is an unusual move for a defense, said Howard Abadinsky, a professor of criminal justice at St. John’s University in New York. He said it could sow doubts about prosecution witnesses in the minds of jurors.
“They’re going to generate a tremendous amount of information and a lot of it is going to be, if not contradictory, show that they didn’t say exactly the same thing at the trial as they said to the reporter,” Abadinsky said.
Lawyers for the Globe, owned by the New York Times Co , said excluding its reporter Shelly Murphy and columnist Kevin Cullen would infringe the right to freedom of the press.
They also questioned their capacity to act as witnesses.
“Their qualifications as witnesses apparently arise from accurately reporting news to the public. Neither was a party or witness to any criminal activity,” wrote Globe attorney Jonathan Albano in a court filing early this week.
Other journalists on the witness list include Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, former Globe columnist Bob Ryan, and Dick Lehr and Gerard O‘Neill, authors of “Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal.” (Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Grant McCool)