BOSTON — Family of alleged victims of reputed Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger got a close-up look at him Friday when he came to federal court for the first time in about two years.
Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, the shackled 83-year-old listened to his lawyers argue they should be able to present a trial defense claiming that a law enforcement official who has since died gave Bulger immunity from prosecution.
But prosecutors argued Friday that if the defendant believed he had immunity, he’d move to have the judge dismiss the indictment.
After authorities removed Bulger’s handcuffs, the defendant shook the hand of one his lawyers before settling in for what became a two-hour hearing. He answered the judge’s greeting of good morning, but only spoke otherwise in whispers to his attorneys.
Tommy Donahue, whose father Bulger is accused of shooting to death in 1982, watched from a front-row courtroom seat. He said later he was glad to see the defendant looking fit.
“He looks better than when he got pinched,” Donahue said. “Which is good, I need him to stay healthy until the trial. After the trial, I don’t care what happens.”
Stephen Rakes, who says he was forced to sell Bulger his liquor store at gunpoint, said he began hyperventilating when he saw the defendant Friday. Rakes said he tried to make eye contact, but Bulger wouldn’t look his way.
“The day I see him in a box, not breathing, will be better,” Rakes said.
U.S. District Judge Denise Casper didn’t immediately rule on the immunity issue. She took on the case last month after an appeals court granted the defendant’s request to remove another judge over a potential conflict of interest.
Casper said Bulger’s last pretrial hearing will be June 3. Jury selection will start the next day, when a pool of hundreds of prospective jurors first will have to fill out a questionnaire that lawyers for both sides will help formulate.
Prosecutors have charged Bulger, whom they say was an FBI informant, with participating in 19 murders.
He is the former leader of the Winter Hill Gang and spent 16 years on the run, becoming one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted before authorities captured him and his girlfriend in California in 2011. Authorities seized more than $800,000 cash and dozens of weapons from their apartment, where the fugitives were posing as married retirees from Chicago.
Bulger has maintained his innocence, and his lawyers said in court Friday that he was never an FBI informant.