Bulger shoots blanks

It was always going to come to this, and yesterday, J.W. Carney made it official: Whitey Bulger’s upcoming murder trial will be as much about Bulger’s sordid relationship with law enforcement as it will be about the 19 murders Bulger’s former gang associates say he participated in.

Carney, Bulger’s attorney, secured a four-month delay in the gangster’s murder trial yesterday. He also mapped out a strategy for trying to avoid trial altogether, claiming Bulger had immunity from prosecution because Bulger passed tips about the Boston mafia to the FBI. He then used his relationship with the FBI to squeeze out his underworld rivals from the North End and run a decades-long criminal enterprise with impunity. Carney is arguing that this impunity is tantamount to legal immunity.

“A representative of the federal government promised James Bulger immunity for any crimes he committed or any crimes he would commit,” Carney argued yesterday. He threatened to call a number of boldface names as witnesses to bolster that claim, including former governor William Weld, current FBI Director Robert Mueller, Bulger’s former handler (and current convict) John Connolly, and Richard Stearns, the judge who is presiding over Bulger’s murder trial, and who formerly headed the US attorney’s criminal division in Boston.

“The defendant will show that a pattern of corruption and misconduct occurred at many levels of the federal government in an effort to enforce its immunity agreement with the defendant,” Carney wrote in court papers filed yesterday. “The criminal division’s failure to prosecute the defendant while Judge Stearns was its chief is corroboration of the Department of Justice’s grant of immunity to the defendant.”

The timing of Bulger’s immunity claim feels odd, given that the South Boston gangster fled town in 1995 to avoid prosecution, and then spent 16 years holed up in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. Howie Carr riffs on that theme today, calling Bulger’s immunity claim “a rosary,” not just a Hail Mary. Carr also predicts Bulger will try to pin the immunity offer on somebody who can’t testify against him, like deceased federal lawmen Jeremiah O’Sullivan or H. Paul Rico. “This immunity defense has been used before, by Stevie Flemmi,” Carr writes. “How’d that one work out for the Rifleman?”

It’s notable that Connolly — who is currently hoping that Bulger will spring him from a Florida prison — appears to have contradicted Bulger’s immunity claim, well over a decade before his lawyer floated it.

In 1998, when the Globe’s Spotlight Team was digging deep into Connolly’s handling of Bulger, Connolly claimed that he was no lone wolf, as he said some inside the Boston FBI were making him out to be. “In Globe interviews, he said that from the start the FBI and the Justice Department allowed Bulger and Flemmi to commit certain crimes short of murder and approved of how he managed the pair,” the paper wrote. The problem for Carney’s defense, of course, is that the current case against Bulger isn’t about extortion or racketeering or other crimes short of murder. It’s only about murder. Even John Connolly says he didn’t clear Bulger for that.

                                                                                                                                                        –PAUL MCMORROW


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