Trial Of Mobster 'Whitey' Bulger Begins In Boston

Opening statements were held Wednesday in the trial of James "Whitey" Bulger, the notorious Boston mobster who is charged with 32 counts of racketeering and murder.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. It could be the final chapter in the long saga of James "Whitey" Bulger. He's the notorious Boston mobster who eluded authorities for 16 years. Bulger is now on trial in federal court in Boston, where he says he is not guilty of everything from racketeering to money laundering and involvement in 19 murders. Today, in opening statements, defense attorneys admitted that Bulger was a criminal but they say he was never an informant, as the government says.

NPR's Tovia Smith was in the courtroom and she joins us now. And Tovia, talk about today's opening statements that kicked off this trial today.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Well, one murder victim's relative called it surreal. Remember, some of these crimes go back to the 1970s. Many believed this trial would never happen but here it is happening. There's this kind of short old man now, in a green jersey and sneakers, not quite evoking the image of the vicious gangster, as prosecutors describe him.

SMITH: And, you know, court began with routine instructions, but then prosecutors began to tell a story that was really anything but ordinary. They called Bulger a hands-on killer who, quote, "did the dirty work himself" and allegedly even joked as he did it. They described victims, former friends, associates, girlfriends, all killed and buried in secret graves. Some relatives in court listening choked up when they heard that.

SMITH: Prosecutors went on to tell stories of shakedowns and extortions and drug running. They showed pictures of Bulger's alleged arsenal. All of this reign of terror, they say, happened while corrupt officials looked the other way and protected Bulger both from rival mob guys and from law enforcement, as prosecutors put it, so that Bulger could stay one step ahead of the, quote, "honest cops" who were trying to get him.

And prosecutors called it a grotesque irony that while Bulger hated rats and was having suspected informants killed, he himself, prosecutors say, was one of the biggest informants in Boston.

BLOCK: So federal prosecutors painting Whitey Bulger as at the center of what they call murder and mayhem in Boston. What is the defense? How are Bulger's attorneys handling their case?

SMITH: Well, they admit straight up that Bulger was up to his ears really in crime, making millions of dollars from illegal gaming and bookmaking and loan sharking and drug dealing and paying off law enforcement to protect this illegal business. But Bulger's lawyers insisted that he was never an informant. They say, as an Irish guy, that would have been considered the worst thing he could do.

But most of what the defense team is doing is attacking the credibility of the evidence that comes, in large part, from convicted, corrupt law enforcement agents or from Bulger's former partners in crime, who are convicted murderers. And Bulger's attorney called them psychopathic killers with no conscience and given their character, he said to jurors, could they be believed beyond a reasonable doubt?

But as one relative, Tommy Donahue, said today after court, in order to bring a rat down, you've got to bring in his rat friends.

BLOCK: Tovia, Whitey Bulger is 83 years old, he's facing 32 counts in this case. What kind of sentence could he face if he's convicted?

SMITH: The reality here is that all of the charges carry different sentences but even a conviction on the relatively - the least serious gun charges could effectively amount to life in prison for a guy who is now 83 years old. And while Bulger's not facing the death penalty in this case, when this is all over he could well stand trial in two other states where he could face the death penalty.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Tovia Smith talking to us from Boston about the trial of mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. Tovia, thanks.

SMITH: Thank you.

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