Prosecutors seek gag order on attorneys for James ‘Whitey’ Bulger; defense accuses them of government overreach

Federal prosecutors today demanded that attorneys for James “Whitey” Bulger stop engaging in “media grandstanding’’ and spreading “false facts” outside the US District Court in Boston, where Bulger is facing charges he participated in 19 murders.

In a six-page request filed today, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office asked US District Judge Denise J. Casper to impose a gag order on J.W. Carney Jr. and Henry Brennan, the two lawyers representing the 83-year-old Bulger at taxpayers’ expense. Jury selection is set to start June 4.

“Defense counsel routinely attempt to bolster the credibility of the defendant and cast aspersions on the government through statements to the press,’’ prosecutors wrote.

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The defense responded sharply late this afternoon, saying that prosecutors were overreaching, and linking the government’s actions to the recent Washington scandals over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative political groups and the government’s investigation of journalists.

“At every turn, the power of the federal government is used to bully, pressure and intimidate the citizenry,” the lawyers said in their response.

In the government’s filing, prosecutors said Carney and Brennan have met with reporters after each hearing in the case. Prosecutors cited as an example statements by Carney on July 17 in which he criticized a judge who has since been ordered off the trial.

“Defense counsel’s routine, post-hearing press conferences outside the federal Courthouse are simply part of a sustained campaign to influence public opinion and color the facts for potential jurors,’’ prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors said the defense lawyers have falsely accused them of hiding information about Bulger’s interaction with federal law enforcement.

“Defense counsel will undoubtedly keep attempting to use post-hearing press conferences to make bald assertions of false facts and to advance ever-changing defense theories,’’ prosecutors wrote. “This is a clear violation of the Local Rules and should be prohibited.’’

Bulger’s lawyers quoted Thomas Jefferson, saying, “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

“The federal district of Massachusetts has not escaped this alarming trend towards government overreach,” the lawyers said. “In a press release disguised as a [court motion] the prosecutors are seeking to silence James Bulger and his defense team.”

Judge Casper has not yet ruled on the request.

Tipped off by corrupt law enforcement officials, Bulger, the notorious gangster who rampaged for years through South Boston, spent more than 16 years on the run. He — and his long-time girlfriend, Catherine Greig — were captured June 22, 2011, in Santa Monica, Calif., where they had been living a modest life in a rent-controlled apartment.

The FBI found more than $822,000 and 30 guns, most of it hidden in the walls of the couple’s apartment. Greig, 62, pleaded guilty to federal charges and is serving an eight-year sentence. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed her sentence last week.