BOSTON The lawyer for James "Whitey" Bulger, the reputed onetime Boston mob boss, told a packed courtroom Wednesday morning that his client was many things bookmaker, drug dealer and loan shark who made "millions and millions" of dollars from his underworld dealings.
But there was one thing he never was an informant for the FBI.
"James Bulger is of Irish descent," J.W. Carney Jr., the lawyer, declared in his opening argument. "And the worst thing an Irish person could consider doing is becoming an informant. That was the first and foremost reason why James Bulger was never an informant against people."
There was a secondary reason, too, Carney said, also of a tribal nature. The FBI was mainly interested in the Italian mafia, but Bulger could not have been of use, Carney said, because he did not know much about Italian organized crime.
"James Bulger was not deeply tied to the Italian mafia," he said. The Italians "wouldn't let someone of that background be knowledgeable."
In the litany of charges against Bulger, being an inside source for the law is not listed. But his lawyer's declarations in court made clear that this is the most important misconception about him that Bulger wants to clear up.
Bulger's day in court finally arrived Wednesday for the coda of his lifetime of crime a major criminal trial in which his decades-long dominance of the South Boston underworld will be laid before the public. Bulger, whose first arrest occurred at age 13, is now 83.
Bulger sat at the defense table at the federal courthouse here wearing a Kelly green sweater tucked into bluejeans and sporting white sneakers. One of his younger brothers, Jackie, sat behind him. Across the courtroom, the benches were jammed with families of people whose deaths Bulger is accused of having had a hand in.
The government painted a less noble portrait of Bulger. In the prosecution's view, he was "at the center" of a criminal enterprise that "ran amok in the city of Boston for almost 30 years." The prosecution made sure the jury understood that he had a role, often pulling the trigger, in 19 murders.
"He was no ordinary leader," said Brian Kelly, the assistant U.S. attorney who made the government's opening arguments. "He did the dirty work himself because he was a hands-on killer."
Bulger is charged in a sweeping and complex 32-count indictment, and the prosecution needed diagrams and flow charts to try to explain his role in the crimes.
His last presentation needed no explanation, however. It was a grim roll call of the 19 murder victims, with their pictures. Some were rival gang members. Some were informants. A few were innocent bystanders.
The trial is expected to last through September.