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Heated arguments in court on eve of Boston mob boss trial

Former mob boss and fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger is seen in a booking mug photo released to Reuters on August 1, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Marsha
Former mob boss and fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger is seen in a booking mug photo released to Reuters on August 1, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Marsha

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) - The lead attorney for Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger shouted over the judge on the eve of his murder trial, accusing state police of turning a blind eye to the purported crimes of a witness who is a former associate of the accused gangster.

Bulger, 83, whose story inspired the 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed," sat quietly in U.S. District Court as his lawyer J.W. Carney accused the government of not providing enough detail into an internal police probe over the handling of a witness, James Martorano.

But U.S. District Judge Denise Casper denied his request to delay the trial's opening statements, scheduled for Wednesday, to allow more time to investigate the issue. Casper told the 12 jurors and six alternates whose selection was finalized on Tuesday to be ready for the trial to begin as scheduled.

"The government wants to cover this up and hide it," said Carney, of Boston law firm Carney & Bassil.

Carney charged that Massachusetts State Police turned a blind eye to possible criminal activity of Martorano since his release from prison in 2007. Martorano served 12 years after confessing to 20 murders and he implicated Bulger.

"That's the theme of the last 20 years and every time a trooper or an FBI agent gets up and says, 'Wait a minute, why are we doing this? This isn't right,' they get crushed like a bug," Carney said in arguments held after jurors were sent home.

Casper tried to maintain order in the courtroom, where more than 100 witnesses including family members of Bulger's apparent victims, associates and law enforcement officials are scheduled to testify. The trial was expected to run about four months and draw overflow crowds of onlookers interested in one of Boston's longest-running crime dramas.

"I understand that you feel very strongly about this manner," she told Carney, who interrupted the judge and prosecutors as he called for the release of additional details. "That was expressed even before you raised your voice."

The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak, described Carney's remarks as "inappropriate and dishonorable."

Prosecutors say state police officials had interviewed the state police officer who made the claim that Martorano's recent crimes had been overlooked and found them without merit.

Bulger, who has lost most of the pale blond hair that earned him the nickname "Whitey" in his youth, faces charges of committing or ordering 19 murders while running Boston's "Winter Hill" crime gang in the 1970s and 80s. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, which also include extortion and racketeering, and faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.

Court officials on Tuesday completed jury selection after reviewing a panel of more than 800 people for a case that has been highly publicized in Boston for decades. Many of the potential jurors questioned over the past week had personal connections, either knowing relatives of victims or law enforcement officials associated with the investigation.

Bulger's case stands as something of a black mark on Boston law enforcement as investigators who shared his Irish background worked with Bulger while they focused their efforts on taking down the Italian mob. Bulger fled Boston after a 1994 tip from a corrupt FBI agent that arrest was imminent and evaded arrest for 16 years. Bulger was eventually caught in a seaside apartment in California in June 2011.

For much of the past year, Bulger's lawyers had argued that he cannot be prosecuted for the crimes he is accused of committing because he had an immunity deal worked out with a now-deceased prosecutor. The prosecution has said no such deal ever existed and judges ruled such a deal would not be legally valid.

(Editing by Andrew Hay, Grant McCool and Bernard Orr)

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