By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - The newly assigned judge hearing the case of accused mobster James "Whitey" Bulger said on Tuesday she was not inclined to overrule her predecessor's decision that Bulger's immunity claim should be decided before his trial begins.
Bulger's lawyers have argued the 83-year-old was granted immunity from prosecution by a now-deceased U.S. attorney.
They asked to present evidence for an immunity claim at trial, a request that the judge previously assigned to the case denied before being removed earlier this month due to his prior role as a federal prosecutor in Boston. That judge had said that he, and not a jury, would rule on the immunity claim.
"I can't say as I sit here now that I am necessarily going to revisit the issue of prospective immunity," said District Court Judge Denise Casper, in her first hearing after being assigned to the case.
Bulger is accused of committing or ordering 19 murders in the 1970s and 1980s as the leader of Boston's "Winter Hill" criminal gang. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted at trial, due to begin in June.
His lawyers continued to argue the immunity point on Tuesday, with Henry Brennan of the Boston law firm Carney & Bassil calling former Judge Richard Stearns' decision not to allow that claim to be argued in front of a jury "faulty."
"We disagree with Judge Stearns' reasoning, his logic and the basis for that ruling," he said.
In the decision not to allow a jury to rule on the claim, Stearns had written that any deal that allowed someone to commit murder would be unenforceable.
But Brennan said prosecutors and Stearns oversimplified the agreement.
"The term used by the prosecution, a license to kill, is nothing we've ever said," Brennan said. "There is no assertion by the defense that Mr. Bulger had a license to kill."
Bulger's lawyers have said little about the immunity claim, other than to deny that Bulger was ever an informant for any law enforcement agency.
Casper said she planned to stick to the current trial schedule, which calls for a June 10 start. Attorneys for both sides estimated the trial could last three months.
The U.S. Court of Appeals earlier this month pulled Stearns off the case, citing his past work at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston.
Casper, who also worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office about a decade ago, noted that she had not been involved in building the case against Bulger.
"I had nothing to do with the prosecution of this case," she said.
The case is one of the highest-profile prosecutions currently facing the Boston federal court. Bulger spent 16 years on the run after fleeing the city on a tip from a corrupt FBI official that arrest was imminent.
His name was prominent on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list until his capture in southern California in June 2011.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; editing by Colleen Jenkins, G Crosse)