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Could Whitey Bulger get a new trial? Defense claims 'lifetime immunity'

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(Read caption) In this courtroom sketch, James 'Whitey' Bulger sits at his sentencing hearing in federal court in Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. Bulger was convicted in August in a broad indictment that included racketeering charges in a string of murders in the 1970s and '80s, as well as extortion, money-laundering and weapons charges. A federal appeals court in Boston heard arguments Monday on Bulger’s bid to overturn his racketeering convictions. Bulger was not present for the proceedings.

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Lawyers for James “Whitey” Bulger are challenging the notorious Boston mob boss’s 2013 conviction, contending that he didn’t get a fair trial.

The former gangster was found guilty of committing or ordering 11 murders in the 1970s and 1980s and is currently serving a sentence of two life terms plus five years for what US District Judge Denise Casper called his “unfathomable” crimes.

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Mr. Bulger’s attorney, Hank Brennan, argued Monday that Judge Casper violated his client’s rights when she refused to let him testify that the late federal prosecutor Jeremiah O’Sullivan had verbally granted Bulger lifetime immunity in exchange for information about the Italian-American mafia in the area.

“That ruling constitutionally deprived Mr. Bulger of his right to present an effective defense to the government’s indictments, respond to the issues ... and stripped him of his right to testify about how he was able to avoid prosecution for almost twenty-five years,” Mr. Brennan and lawyer James Budreau wrote in the appeal filed last August.

Bulger, whose reign of terror in South Boston had lasted decades before he fled the area in 1994, had been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for years before his capture in 2011. In August 2013, jurors found Bulger guilty of 31 of 32 counts including racketeering, extortion, and money laundering, as well as the murder of 11 people.

Prior to the trial, Casper had barred any reference to his claim of immunity, saying that Mr. O’Sullivan never had the authority to follow through on such a promise, and that any deal that would have allowed him to continue to murder with impunity would have no legal standing.

Federal prosecutors have sided with Casper, urging the court to reject the appeal in January. Bulger did not have a right to present his immunity claim to jurors because immunity is an issue for a judge to decide prior to trial, according to the prosecutors.

Evidence of Bulger’s guilt “can reasonably be described as overwhelming,” and his right to testify “does not entitle him to offer testimony that is irrelevant or otherwise barred by the Federal Rules of Evidence,” Assistant US Attorney Randall E. Kromm wrote, the Boston Globe reported.

Bulger has denied ever serving as an informant to the FBI, saying that he paid a corrupt federal agent for information but never offered any of his own.  

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“I've been choked off from having an opportunity to give an adequate defense and explain about my conversation and agreement with Jeremiah O'Sullivan,” Bulger said during his trial. “For my protection of his life, in return, he promised to give me immunity.”

Federal prosecutors, represented by Mr. Kromm, are expected to argue that no evidence supporting the existence of an immunity deal has ever been produced and that Bulger’s claim is “meritless,” according to a filing ahead of Monday’s hearing.

A three-judge panel in the First Circuit of the US Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on Monday. Bulger was not present for the proceedings.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.