Will Whitey Bulger Testify? It's Still Unclear

The defense in the Whitey Bulger trial began Monday. Still unanswered is the big question: Will the reputed mob boss testify?

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The massive racketeering case against James Whitey Bulger could go to a federal jury in Boston this week. The one thing that could delay it is if the former mob boss himself takes the stand.

Bulger's defense team called their first witness yesterday, hoping to undermine the government's case by exposing what they call widespread government corruption.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the big question hanging over this trial now is whether he will testify in his own defense.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: He's one of the nation's most notorious mobsters, the subject of dozens books, movies and profiles, and by all accounts, James Whitey Bulger has been very eager to do some talking for himself.

JAY CARNEY: He is going to testify at this trial.

SMITH: A year ago, his attorney Jay Carney insisted Bulger would take the stand and tell all.

CARNEY: We are going to ask our client on the stand about everything. We have no secrets.

SMITH: But since Bulger was barred from making his main argument - that prosecutors offered him immunity - Carney has backpedalled, even last week insisting he won't say whether Bulger will testify until all other witnesses are done.

MIKE CASSIDY: To me, that sounds like he's hedging his bets, because he's not making the final decision, and he might not even know.

SMITH: As BC law professor Mike Cassidy notes, the decision is ultimately Bulger's, and Bulger has to know if he takes the stand, he'll face a withering cross-examination on everything from whether he was an informant - even earlier than alleged in this case - to whether, as a former cohort testified, Bulger had an affair with a 16-year-old girl.

CASSIDY: Whitey Bulger wants to take the stand and now be exposed to cross-examination about pedophilia? Those are the types of questions that would be allowed to be asked. I just see there are far too many downsides.

JAMES MCDONALD: Yes, he'll subject himself to cross-examination subject, but so what?

SMITH: James McDonald is an attorney for Bulger's former FBI handler John Connolly, who's appealing his conviction. Putting a defendant on the stand is usually risky, but this is not your usual case, McDonald notes.

Bulger's attorneys have already conceded some of the crimes he's accused of, admitting that, yes, Bulger was head of a criminal enterprise, dealing drugs, loan sharking and illegally gaming. And, McDonald says, Bulger has got to understand that at 83 years old, he has little to lose.

MCDONALD: I mean, let's face it. I don't see Whitey Bulger ever seeing the light of day as a free man. He's going to go to jail. So I think this is Bulger's last chance to have the spotlight on him and get to say whatever he's going to say, because after this, it's goodbye.

SMITH: Bulger's priority is apparently proving he was never an informant, and that he did not and would not kill women.

Dick Lehr is a professor at Boston University and a Bulger biographer.

DICK LEHR: So much oxygen has been spent insisting that Whitey wasn't an informant. It just shows that, you know, Whitey doesn't care about the criminal charges. What he cares about is this idea that you can call me a strategist, you can call me liaison, but just don't call me a rat.

SMITH: To his alleged victims, the prospect of Bulger testifying is just one more source of stress.

Steve Davis has already sat through graphic testimony that Bulger killed his sister Debbie and through Bulger's attorney's denials. Davis says the idea that Bulger can persuade anyone that he's some sort of stand-up guy who wouldn't kill women is ridiculous.

STEVE DAVIS: These guys, you got to understand, were killing their best friends. They didn't care. You know, what, I mean what is that? These guys aren't normal upstairs.

SMITH: Davis says part of him has been waiting decades to see Bulger, quote, "ripped apart," on the stand. It'd be frustrating to miss that, Davis says, but so would watching Bulger get up there and grandstand.

DAVIS: So we're dealing with a double-edged sword: damned if do, damned if you don't. I just have to deal with it.

SMITH: If Bulger testifies, experts say it'll be a challenge to keep the trial from becoming a sideshow.

Former federal prosecutor Josh Levy says there'll be a lot riding on how much leeway Bulger gets.

JOSH LEVY: You can't just go up on the stand and give a monologue about your life and who you want to settle scores with. It has to be relevant evidence. And the judge is the gatekeeper on what evidence the jury hears. And when you limit defense testimony, you create appeal issues.

SMITH: Ultimately, it may be that Bulger and his defense team have long since decided whether he will or won't testify. But even a rookie lawyer knows better to keep the other side guessing.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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