Seasoned, well-known lawyer faces a big challenge

'This is just the latest case I have where I have a client who is in a jam and I’m going to be the person to try and get him out,' said J.W. Carney Jr. "This is just the latest case I have where I have a client who is in a jam and I’m going to be the person to try and get him out," said J.W. Carney Jr.
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / July 1, 2011

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The tall, bespectacled lawyer approached his new client, reputed mob boss James “Whitey’’ Bulger, in federal court yesterday and firmly shook his hand.

“Jay Carney,’’ he said, smiling at Bulger, who smiled back. “My pleasure.’’

J.W. Carney Jr., one of the state’s best known criminal defense attorneys, has represented people accused of horrific crimes - alleged child killers, men charged with bludgeoning and poisoning their wives, and a man who killed two people when he shot up two Brookline clinics that perform abortions.

Now the man who has been called the patron saint of hopeless cases has arguably the biggest challenge of his career: defending a notorious alleged gangster accused of killing 19 people.

Yesterday, a US magistrate judge ruled Bulger qualified for a court-appointed lawyer and handed Carney, who sat in the back of the courtroom, the case.

“To me, this is just the latest case I have where I have a client who is in a jam and I’m going to be the person to try and get him out,’’ Carney said in a telephone interview yesterday after the hearing. “It’s the thousandth time I’ve shook hands with a new client and said, ‘Hello, I’m Jay Carney.’ ’’

A lawyer whose quiet demeanor belies his passion for difficult cases, Carney has the right expertise and temperament to represent Bulger, legal observers said.

“Jay Carney is an outstanding criminal defense lawyer, and Whitey Bulger is very lucky to have him,’’ said Howard Cooper, a Boston criminal defense attorney whose firm had been scheduled to handle the 1995 racketeering charges against Bulger.

Those charges were dismissed yesterday, leaving only the 1999 murder charges. Federal magistrate judges typically select defense attorneys from a pre-approved panel of lawyers to represent clients who cannot afford to pay for their own representation.

“Jay is an extraordinarily well-prepared, hard-working, and able advocate, and when he gets in the courtroom, he’s the guy who is calm and deliberate and at the same time knows how to move a jury,’’ Cooper said.

Representing Bulger will shine an enormous spotlight on Carney. But with the publicity and prestige comes a tremendous workload, Cooper said.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,’’ he said. “There are incredible rights and issues at stake that require, after the news cameras have left you, that you roll up your sleeves and go to work.’’

Asked whether he was relieved or disappointed to lose the chance to represent Bulger, Cooper said, “No comment.’’

A graduate of Boston College Law School, Carney is familiar with the media glare.

He defended John C. Salvi III, who in 1994 shot up the Brookline clinics.

In 2005, he represented James Keown, a talk-show host charged with slowly poisoning his wife with antifreeze-laced Gatorade.

In 2009, he began defending Tarek Mehanna, a Sudbury man accused of terrorism and plotting to kill Americans at home and overseas.

At times, Carney’s cases have made him the target of death threats, but fellow attorneys said that through the years, he has remained cool and collected.

“He’s not what you call flamboyant,’’ said John LaChance, a Framingham defense lawyer who represented the brother of Bulger associate Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi.

Beneath his suit jacket, Carney favors sweater vests and cardigans and rarely raises his voice in court.

“He’s not a yeller or a screamer,’’ LaChance said. “He’s more intellectual, more well spoken. He’s very precise in what he says.

“He is able to connect with and talk to juries, but he’s not a big showman at trial.’’

Carney, a former prosecutor, is also one of the few lawyers who successfully prosecuted a man for rape and then successfully helped the man prove he was wrongly convicted.

As a Middlesex prosecutor, Carney convinced a jury that Dennis Maher was guilty of raping two women and assaulting a third in Lowell and Ayer in the 1980s.

But in the years following the verdict, Carney became concerned that Maher had been poorly represented and pushed the Innocence Project to take his case.

In 2003, Maher was released after DNA evidence showed he was not the rapist.

To defend Bulger, Carney said, he plans to form a team of attorneys, investigators, and paralegals from the firm he runs with his partner, Janice Bassil.

He said he would devote “all the resources that will be necessary’’ to the case.

Even as he tried to describe Bulger as just another client, Carney acknowledged that others see him differently.

Yesterday afternoon, he said, he was driving aggressively to Plymouth, illegally switching lanes, when a state trooper pulled him over.

“Where are you going and why are you in such a hurry?’’ Carney said the trooper asked. The lawyer explained he was going to see Bulger, his new client, at the Plymouth County House of Correction.

Carney said the trooper sent him on his way without a ticket and with this missive: “ ‘Congratulations. Good luck and Godspeed.’ ’’

Milton J. Valencia and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Cramer can be reached at