LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
He was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for more than a decade before Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger was captured two years ago. He was found living with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, in a rented apartment in Santa Monica, Calif.; discovered with the help of this nationwide TV ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sixty-year-old Greig is the girlfriend of 81-year-old Bulger. He has a violent temper and is charged with 19 murders. Call the tip line at...
MONTAGNE: Bulger's trial in a federal court in Boston began this week with the jury selection. Along with those 19 murders, Bulger faces numerous charges of extortion and money laundering. NPR's Tovia Smith has this report.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Others have told his story in books and movies. Now, Whitey Bulger gets to take the stand, as he reportedly put it to a friend, to try to clear his name.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Whitey raw is coming in. Court pictures? And I'll feed the other stuff too.
SMITH: Satellite media trucks have swarmed the federal court in Boston for a trial that could be explosive and emotional.
STEVE DAVIS: This is going to be a three-ring circus.
SMITH: Steve Davis, whose sister Debra was murdered in 1981, plans to be in the small courtroom every day, just feet away from the former mobster.
DAVIS: This is so stressful. I can't even get in to how the pressure is on me, my wife and kids. It's sick, and I just want to put it to rest.
SMITH: Jurors may hear from relatives of many alleged Bulger victims. The 19 in this case include rival mobsters, businessmen, mob girlfriends and innocent bystanders.
Prosecutors may also call dozens of law enforcement officials, and former Bulger associates - a one-time hit man and a former lieutenant, who both cut deals for cooperating with the government, and Bulger's old partner in crime, Stephen The Rifleman Flemmi, who's serving life for 10 murders.
MIKE CASSIDY: The old expression is when you want to get the devil you have to go to hell to get your witnesses. You're not going to find, you know, choirboys and angels to be your witnesses in this type of case.
SMITH: Boston College law professor Mike Cassidy was working with the state attorney general at the time of Bulger's so-called unholy alliance with the FBI, when he was working as an informant but got more from corrupt agents than they got from him. That allowed Bulger to swagger about town, literally above the law, as he allegedly conducted his daily business of murder, gambling, drug racketeering and loan-sharking.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
WHITEY BULGER: Have you got the money for them checks? Bring it back and give it back to Glen. Yeah. No, this is Jim. All right. Well, he'll be here waiting for you.
SMITH: Old recordings like this one will be among the thousand pieces of evidence presented by prosecutors. They have files full of FBI memos, the guns and grenade found in Bulger's apartment when he was caught, and a slew of photos: crime scenes, morgue shots, and gruesome images of murder victims' remains being excavated from secret graves.
With all the evidence against Bulger, Cassidy says defense attorneys' best bet is to flip focus back to the government and try to stun jurors with more allegations of corruption.
CASSIDY: I would be surprised if there weren't surprises in this case. You know, shock and awe is probably part of their game plan.
SMITH: Bulger has been barred from trying to argue his main defense - that the FBI promised him immunity in exchange for being an informant. The judge says no one has authority to grant a so-called license to kill, so even if someone did, it's not enforceable.
But at the same time Bulger claims to have won immunity for being an informant, he's also denying that he was an informant.
DICK LEHR: Yeah. No, huh? It's a lot of pretzel logic here that we're waiting to see how does this work.
SMITH: Boston University professor and Bulger biographer Dick Lehr says it's easy to understand why Bulger would not want to be known as a snitch. Indeed, Bulger always managed to play a kind of good bad guy who helped the needy and protected the neighborhood.
LEHR: He was the underworld Robin Hood, you know. But boy, that's been blown out of the water a long time ago. I mean the evidence is overwhelming. He's a predator, he's a monster, and there's just no way around it.
SMITH: In some ways the long-awaited trial is really anti-climactic. Prosecutors only need to win guilty verdicts on a couple of the counts - even a couple weapons convictions could effectively mean life for the now 83-year-old. And, Lehr notes, Bulger could also still face the death penalty for murder charges elsewhere.
LEHR: For all intents and purposes, I mean Whitey's done. No matter what happens in this trial, he's done.
SMITH: But don't expect Bulger to fold. In letters from prison, Bulger reportedly calls the trial the Big Show. Lehr says it's exactly the game Bulger loves.
LEHR: When he was a crime boss it was about accumulating power and outfoxing law enforcement. When he became the fugitive, it was about catch me if you can. And now that he's been captured, you know, it's his moment to continue to play this master chess game. And I think it fully energizes him.
SMITH: Bulger will be making the trip from prison to the federal court for his trial every day for what may be four months. But as he reportedly wrote to a friend, that prison cell is where he fully expects to remain until he dies. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.