BOSTON (AP) — Lawyers for former mobster James "Whitey" Bulger have asked a federal appeals court to order the judge scheduled to preside over his murder trial to step aside because of his close ties to the U.S. Department of Justice.
U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns has twice rejected a defense request to recuse himself from Bulger's trial.
Bulger's lawyers say Stearns should not preside at the trial because he was a federal prosecutor during a time when Bulger claims he was given immunity for crimes he committed while he was an FBI informant on the Mafia, his gang's main rival.
In a written response rejecting one of the earlier defense requests, Stearns said there is no connection between his former position as chief of the criminal division of the U.S. attorney's office and the organized crime strike force.
Bulger, 83, claims that former federal prosecutor Jeremiah O'Sullivan, who led the strike force, gave him immunity.
O'Sullivan, in testimony to Congress in 2002, denied protecting Bulger from prosecution for violent crimes. O'Sullivan died in 2009.
Bulger ran the Winter Hill Gang and is accused of participating in 19 murders in the 1970s and 1980s. He fled Boston in late 1994 and remained a fugitive until June 2011, when he was captured in Santa Monica, Calif., with his longtime girlfriend, Catherine Greig.
Bulger and Greig were posing as married retirees from Chicago when authorities arrested them, seizing more than $800,000 in cash and 30 weapons from their apartment.
In court documents filed this week, Bulger's lawyer J.W. Carney Jr. said he plans to call Stearns as a witness at Bulger's trial to explain why the U.S. attorney's office, under his supervision, did not prosecute Bulger.
"The law — and common sense — says that a person cannot be both judge and witness," Carney wrote.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz declined to comment on the defense request Thursday.
In a written response to the earlier defense requests, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly called Bulger's immunity claim "absurd."
Bulger, who has pleaded not guilty, is scheduled to go on trial in June.
Greig, who's in her 60s, pleaded guilty to charges related to helping Bulger stay on the run for 16 years. She's serving an eight-year sentence at a low-security federal prison in Minnesota but has filed an appeal aimed at reducing that time, claiming people who say their relatives were killed by Bulger shouldn't have been allowed to speak at her sentencing.