US likely first in ‘long line’ for trials

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / June 24, 2011

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The US attorney in Boston, Carmen M. Ortiz, said yesterday that she plans to vigorously pursue the case against James “Whitey’’ Bulger on a host of murder, racketeering, and related charges as soon as he arrives from Santa Monica. But prosecutors in Florida and Oklahoma are lining up to get their own crack at the longtime fugitive.

Ortiz said the federal charges against Bulger would not carry the death penalty. But the state prosecutors in Miami and Tulsa with murder cases against Bulger will have that option.

How the cases against Bulger proceed, and whether he ever faces the death penalty, will depend on negotiations among state and federal officials. Several former prosecutors interviewed by the Globe expect federal officials to have the strongest voice in those decisions, for both political and practical reasons.

Most importantly, federal officials captured Bulger and have custody of him, and Ortiz said he would face federal justice in Boston before any other jurisdiction. Boston is the place where Bulger is best known, where most of his alleged crimes occurred, and where most of the witnesses live.

“You’ve got more people who know the facts, who know the set of organized criminal activities here,’’ said Brien T. O’Connor, a prosecutor for 10 years who is now a Boston defense attorney.

Beyond that, federal officials were embarrassed by their role in aiding Bulger when he was an FBI informant, and by their inability to capture him for 16 years, providing added incentive to bring him to justice on federal charges.

“They’ve invested a huge amount of resources,’’ said Robert L. Ullmann, who was a federal prosecutor for more than a decade. “He’s local, and the Massachusetts US attorney’s office was the primary investigative agency. I can’t see any other law enforcement office taking the lead.’’

If Bulger is prosecuted in Boston first, both Florida and Oklahoma prosecutors would have the option of holding trials afterward.

Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the Miami-Dade state attorney, said she is eager to try Bulger in Florida, the site of the 2008 trial for his former FBI handler, John J. Connolly Jr., who was convicted of second-degree murder there after a previous federal conviction in Boston.

“James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s criminal activities have been marked by the corpses his killers and associates have left behind,’’ she said. “After a 16-year delay, I will be working to ensure that a Miami jury has the opportunity to look him in the eyes and determine his fate.’’

A spokesman for Rundle, Ed Griffith, said Bulger is eligible for the death penalty in Florida because he was indicted in 2004 on a first-degree murder charge there in connection with the 1982 shooting of John B. Callahan. Griffin said no decision has been made on the death penalty.

“First we have to get our hands on him,’’ Griffith said. “I guess there’s a long line.’’

Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris said “it is our intention to bring justice to Mr. Wheeler’s family, friends and this community’’ for the 1981 shooting death of Roger Wheeler Sr. Harris’s spokeswoman, Susan Witt, said a decision on the death penalty will be made later.

Both state prosecutors will have time to consider their decisions. Federal prosecutions often take several years, and the 81-year-old Bulger is likely to die in prison if he is convicted, regardless of whether he faces additional state prosecution.

US Representative William Keating, a former district attorney, said if Bulger is found guilty in the federal system, it is possible that prosecutors elsewhere will opt against trying him.

They will need to ask themselves, “Are you using state resources when it may not be necessary?’’ he said.

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