By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Boston's federal court on Friday tapped a new judge to hear the government's case against James "Whitey" Bulger after the accused mobster's lawyer objected to the previous judge's work prosecuting organized crime in the New England city.
The court named Judge Denise Casper to hear the case, replacing Judge Richard Stearns, according to a court filing.
Casper, who was confirmed as a District Court judge in 2010, will be taking on one of the highest-profile criminal cases currently facing the court, and one that could shine a light on a dark period for Boston law enforcement.
Bulger's attorney, J.W. Carney of the Boston law firm Carney & Bassil had asked for Stearns to be removed from the case since he worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston in the 1980s, when the government was building its case against Bulger.
The Court of Appeals in Boston on Thursday agreed to that request, saying the judge's history as a federal prosecutor in Boston created the appearance that he could not be impartial in hearing the case.
Bulger is accused of committing or ordering 19 murders while he ran Boston's "Winter Hill" crime gang in the 1970s and '80s. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted at a trial currently scheduled to begin in June.
Bulger fled Boston in 1994 on a tip from a corrupt FBI agent that arrest was imminent. He successfully eluded capture until 2011, when authorities tracked him down in a seaside apartment in Santa Monica, California, where he had been hiding out.
Carney has contended that Bulger, now 83, had worked out an immunity deal with a former top prosecutor in Boston and wants to argue that point before a jury.
Stearns had refused that request, saying he planned to rule on the matter and signaled that he was skeptical of it.
Casper also worked in the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston, several years after Stearns, and went on to serve as deputy district attorney for Middlesex County, before being confirmed as a judge in 2010.
Carney on Friday declined to comment on Casper's appointment. On Thursday he told reporters that he had no objection to any of the other judges in Boston federal court.
The U.S. Attorney in Boston did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bulger's name was prominent on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list and his case inspired Martin Scorsese's 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed."
(Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Bernadette Baum and Andrew Hay)