Daunting task for a defender

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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / June 28, 2011

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Even in a city filled with top-flight criminal defenders, finding one to take James “Whitey’’ Bulger’s case may prove a challenge.

The reputed mob kingpin stands accused of 19 murders and a slew of organized-crime charges that date back decades and involve a web of related cases in various jurisdictions.

It is a case so vast and complex that even experienced defense attorneys are overwhelmed by the prospect. And a court-appointed lawyer would receive public money, with hourly rates set considerably lower than high-powered defense attorneys typically receive, often about a third of usual billings.

“It’s going to be all-consuming,’’ said Randy Chapman, a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor. “Whoever does it will have to shut down their entire practice for two years, and there aren’t a lot of people who are willing to do that.’’

Peter B. Krupp, a Boston lawyer who represented Bulger in court Friday and filed several motions on his behalf yesterday, apparently does not want to continue the case and has reached out to other lawyers to gauge their interest, several leading defense attorneys said yesterday.

That has sparked intense speculation in the city’s legal community over who will step forward to defend the notorious crime boss and FBI informant. But the conversations have generally ended with no consensus over likely candidates.

“I have no idea’’ who might take Bulger as a client, said Allison Burroughs, a Boston defense lawyer who previously prosecuted organized crime cases. Burroughs and other attorneys said lawyers would need to drop everything to take the case.

“It would be very hard to handle it without everything else grinding to a halt,’’ Burroughs said. “It’s a major investment.’’

Defense lawyers sometimes accept high-profile cases even when the immediate financial rewards are small, betting that the prestige and publicity are worth relatively low returns.

But the Bulger case is different from others with intensive media coverage, attorneys say. Many are speculating that it will be settled before trial and somewhat out of the public eye.

Since defending Bulger is sure to take a substantial team of lawyers, many smaller firms simply lack the resources. Further narrowing the field, many lawyers who have agreed to serve as court-appointed representation for indigent clients would be ruled out because they had roles in previous trials involving Bulger’s alleged conspirators and colluders or witnesses who testified against them.

“My guess is a lot, if not the majority, of these lawyers have conflicts with this case,’’ said Chris Dearborn, a former criminal defense lawyer who teaches at Suffolk University Law School.

Others voiced ethical qualms over defending an accused serial murderer, a gangster accused of savagery that has been chronicled in both print and film, or have doubts they could represent him vigorously. They also worry about the public backlash that could come with defending such a figure, particularly one who has eluded justice for so long.

On a more practical front, most also presume that evidence against Bulger is overwhelming and are wary about the professional pitfalls of opposing a substantial team of federal prosecutors bent on finally putting Bulger away for good.

Bulger has asked the court to assign him counsel, contending that he cannot afford it. But prosecutors have scoffed at that assertion and strenuously object. US District Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf has scheduled a hearing on the matter for today.

Most attorneys expect that Bulger will be granted a public defender and that Wolf will then begin a search. Many prominent lawyers quietly say that they want no part of the case and that an unusual number of their colleagues, including some whose practices are based on defending accused murderers, are choosing to sit this one out.

“There are many, many lawyers in Massachusetts who are qualified to handle the case,’’ Chapman said. “There are far, far fewer who would want to.’’

Krupp, in a motion filed yesterday supporting Bulger’s request for court-appointed counsel, outlined the staggering volume of documents in the case and the magnitude of what his lawyers will face.

“Representation of Mr. Bulger in these cases will be a substantial undertaking,’’ Krupp wrote. “For example, Mr. Bulger’s counsel would have to master a voluminous record of litigation that has gone before.’’

The racketeering case before Wolf has about 17,000 pages of hearing transcripts, 2,300 docket entries, and a number of hefty opinions. A separate indictment includes 19 murders spanning four decades.

“The constellation of cases against Mr. Bulger will undoubtedly require the full-time work of a number of attorneys, paralegals, and investigators over several years,’’ Krupp wrote.

Echoing a fear voiced by other attorneys, Krupp added that in the court of public opinion, Bulger is already guilty. All the media attention, he wrote, has made it “as close to impossible for Mr. Bulger to get a fair trial on these charges as can be, and certainly more challenging than in any case in modern memory.’’

Yet some lawyers will be drawn to that challenge, guided by the belief that even those accused of the most heinous crimes deserve a robust defense and are innocent until proved otherwise.

“Young lawyers become criminal lawyers because they believe in standing between a charged citizen and their government,’’ said defense attorney Martin Weinberg.

“That’s why they choose criminal law, and what could be a greater test for whether the system works than representing a man against whom there’s been so much negative publicity?’’

And while representing Bulger will undoubtedly be difficult, it will just as surely deliver a measure of fame.

“This is a career case,’’ Chapman said. “Whoever takes it, and someone will, it will be in their obituary.’’

David Abel and Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at