Judge refuses to recuse himself from James ‘Whitey’ Bulger case; says allegations are ‘specious and unsupported’

A federal judge today rejected a request by lawyers for James “Whitey” Bulger to recuse himself from the long-anticipated trial of the notorious gangster, saying he has no conflict of interest in the case.

“I am confident that no reasonable person could doubt my impartiality,” said US District Judge Richard G. Stearns. “I have no doubt whatsoever about my ability to remain impartial at all times while presiding over this case.”

Lawyers for Bulger had alleged that Stearns would have a conflict because the judge was once a federal prosecutor, including during times when Bulger allegedly committed his crimes several decades ago. The judge was also chief of the US attorney’s office’s criminal division during part of that time.

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Bulger’s lawyers have indicated they may call the judge to testify as a witness as part of a motion to have the case dismissed. That motion will be based on Bulger’s argument that he was granted immunity from prosecution for his crimes because he was working as an FBI informant.

The lawyers alleged that Stearns had either known, or should have known, of Bulger’s immunity deal.

But Stearns argued that he has no reason to recuse himself and that he would not be considered a material witness in the proceedings: the standard a judge must follow in recusing himself. He said he did not participate in, or have any knowledge of, any case or investigation in which Bulger was a subject or a target.

“I have nothing of a relevant or material nature to offer with regard to this case or any claim of immunity,” the judge said in an 11-page order issued today.

“There is a long-standing presumption of judicial impartiality in the federal courts of the United States, including those of the First Circuit. This presumption is not overcome by specious and unsupported factual allegations,” he wrote.

Also today, a federal magistrate judge lifted a protective order limiting the disclosure of evidence gathered by the government in the case.

The order by US Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler had barred Bulger’s legal team from sharing evidence provided by the government with anyone except witnesses and people mentioned in court records. Bulger’s lawyers had contended they needed to share the information under seal with other people to properly defend their client. The Boston Globe also sought to have the order lifted.

Bowler lifted most of the order during a hearing this afternoon. She said she would issue a detailed order today on the types of information that must remain under seal. The order will not go into effect for two weeks, though, during which time prosecutors will be given a chance to identify records they believe should be sealed.

Carney said the order would allow the defense team to share some of the “hundreds of thousands” of documents with outside lawyers, for example, so they could discuss strategy, and groups such as focus groups or groups of friends and relatives “that a lawyer traditionally runs his or her case past” to get some feedback.

“These steps are taken by every competent lawyer in preparing for a trial. We’ve been unable to do so but now with Judge Bowler’s order, we expect we will be able to have those discussions.”

Bulger, 82, was one of America’s most wanted fugitives before his arrest in June 2011 after more than 16 years. He is set to go to trial in March that alleges he participated in 19 murders. Prosecutors and defense attorneys are set to appear in court today at a routine status hearing.