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Witnesses At Whitey Bulger's Trial Won't Be Choirboys

James "Whitey" Bulger, in an image released by the U.S. Marshal's Service in August 2011.
EPA /Landov
James "Whitey" Bulger, in an image released by the U.S. Marshal's Service in August 2011.

There's an old expression, Boston College Law School professor Michael Cassidy said Wednesday on Morning Edition:

"When you want to get the devil, you have to go to hell to get your witnesses."

And that's certainly going to be true at the trial of infamous Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger, which is getting underway this week.

"You're not going to find ... choirboys and angels to be your witnesses in this type of case," said Cassidy. Among those expected to be called to the stand: Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, one of Bulger's former lieutenants who is serving a life sentence for 10 murder convictions.

Bulger, now 83, was captured in California nearly two years ago after 16 years on the run. He's been accused of 19 murders and racketeering. The crimes go back to the mid-1960s.

Bulger's girlfriend, Catherine Greig, has already been sentenced to 8 years in prison. She pleaded guilty last year to charges of conspiracy to harbor a fugitive.

Our colleagues at WBUR have much more about Bulger and the trial, which is expected to last 4 months or more. The station's report includes:

-- "Bulger On Trial," a long look at what's likely to happen in court. According to WBUR, "The trial of James J. Bulger ... with over 160 potential witnesses, spanning decades of history... is the biggest in Massachusetts since the 1920s murder trials of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the Italian immigrants and suspected anarchists whose prosecution, conviction, and death by the electric chair drew international attention."

-- Stories of Bulger's victims. "Some of the 19 were truly innocent, uninvolved in crime and damned by random circumstance. One woman was the victim of bad judgment; the other was victim to the violation of her childhood. One of the men was a legitimate businessman. Yet most of the victims were career criminals in the swamp of a trade saturated in violence, brute force and treachery. The only rule, a pretense to gallantry, was that women and children were off limits — you didn't shoot when they were on the playing field, except for the people who sometimes did."

As The Associated Press notes, at the trial "perhaps the biggest challenge will be finding 18 people who can spend the next four months hearing testimony about a long list of allegations against Bulger." According to the AP, Judge Denise Casper said Tuesday that "people will not necessarily be excused from sitting on the jury simply because they have read or heard about Bulger. The 'critical issue,' she said, is whether they can decide the case based only on evidence presented in court."

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.