By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Accused mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, who spent 16 years on the run, much of it on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list, goes on trial next week for committing or ordering 19 murders in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bulger's case is one of the most notorious in Boston history. He fled the city in 1994 after getting a tip from a corrupt FBI agent that his arrest was imminent.
Until his arrest about two years ago, he was living in plain sight in California with his girlfriend.
Now 83, Bulger is accused of committing or ordering the murders while he ran Boston's "Winter Hill" crime gang. He also faces charges of racketeering and extortion.
In a black mark for Boston law enforcement, Bulger cooperated with FBI officials who shared his Irish background, using the ties to undermine rival crime gangs while advancing his own interests.
His trial before U.S. District Court Judge Denise Casper is scheduled to begin next Monday after jury selection this week, and is expected to last four months.
Court officials have prepared for overflow courtroom crowds, who will be curious to see the accused as well as more than 100 scheduled witnesses including investigators, former members of Bulger's gang and relatives of his alleged victims.
Bulger has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces the possibility of life in prison.
Prosecutors have submitted hundreds of pages of evidence against him. Their main challenge, according to legal observers, will be to avoid technical errors that could lead to a mistrial.
"Nobody expects Whitey Bulger to be acquitted, but you never know when something can go wrong and derail a prosecution and there's a mistrial or a retrial," said Michael Kendall, head of the white-collar defense practice at McDermott Will & Emery. Kendall, a former federal prosecutor, investigated some of Bulger's associates.
"Probably the most important reason for the trial is there are a lot of victims' families that would like a public airing of the injustice that happened to their families," he said.
Actor Jack Nicholson's character in Martin Scorsese's 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed" was loosely based on Bulger.
Bulger's attorney, J.W. Carney of the Boston law firm Carney & Bassil, spent much of the past year arguing that his client could not be tried since a now-deceased assistant U.S. attorney, Jeremiah O'Sullivan, had granted Bulger immunity.
Carney insisted that Bulger had never provided information to investigators, but that immunity had been granted for other reasons, which he planned to disclose at trial.
The first judge assigned to the case, Richard Stearns, rejected that argument. Carney argued successfully to have Stearns removed as the trial judge, citing his history as a federal prosecutor who focused on organized crime in New England.
Casper, who was appointed to the case in May, upheld Stearns' decision that there would be no legal basis for granting someone a right to commit murder.
The prosecution's list of witnesses includes relatives of Bulger's alleged victims, who have been a constant presence at court proceedings leading up to the trial.
The trial had been scheduled to begin in November, but Bulger's lawyers succeeded in having it pushed back twice. Victims' families had expressed outrage at the delays, worrying that Bulger would die in prison before he was tried.
Family members last spoke out in court a year ago, when Bulger's girlfriend, Catherine Greig, was sentenced to eight years in prison for her role in helping him hide from police.
The two had lived quietly in a Santa Monica, California, apartment packed with weapons and cash. They were arrested in June 2011 after Boston FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers launched a media campaign that included pictures of Greig as well as Bulger.
Greig's June 2012 sentencing hearing was marked by outbursts from family members of Bulger's alleged victims, prompting the judge at the hearing to apologize to Greig for the "cruel, crude" comments.
Prosecutors will want to rein in victims' families in their testimony, legal observers said.
"Some of these victims' families have been in the press and been on TV and they are hot-headed and they are obviously quite highly motivated to testify and to say nasty things about the defendant," said Tom Peisch, a partner in Boston law firm Conn Kavanaugh and a former federal prosecutor.
The most dramatic moment could come toward the end of the trial, if Bulger himself takes the stand. The defendant, whose brother, William, was the powerful speaker of the Massachusetts House for years, became a local legend during his years on the run.
"The jury will be on the edge of their seats when he's called. At the end of the day, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't testify, but I can understand why the defense is making it sound like he will," said Peisch.
"This is kind of a Hail Mary, and he is likely to say anything," Peisch said.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Jeffrey Benkoe)
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