BOSTON — Everyone has a constitutional right to a lawyer to defend themselves against criminal charges. If you can’t afford one, the court appoints one. That’s what James “Whitey” Bulger wants. The question is, can he afford a private attorney?
Prosecutors argue in court documents that Bulger financed a comfortable lifestyle on the run. He went to Las Vegas, where he bragged to law enforcement officials that he won more than he lost. He went to Mexico to buy medicine. And they say he told investigators he came back to Boston on several occasions in disguise to “take care of some unfinished business.” Bulger even said he previously stashed money with people he trusted. The government wants to find that money.
“They are looking to find [that] pot of gold somewhere that they can recover,” said Randy Chapman, a criminal defense attorney and former Essex County prosecutor. “They are looking to strip him of any assets that he’s received in the course of his alleged activities.”
At the request of Bulger’s alleged victims, a federal judge has already put a lien on the $822,000 found in his apartment in Santa Monica. The government is also asking the judge to require affidavits from Bulger’s brothers — William and John — before deciding whether he deserves taxpayer-funded counsel.
According to the prosecution, Bulger said his brother William might post bail for his girlfriend Catherine Greig. If that’s true, the government says, William might also be willing to pay for his brother’s defense.
Bulger’s temporary lawyer, Peter Krupp, responded in a motion that Bulger is broke and any money found will be seized by the government. Krupp also said Bulger “has not and will not” request any member of his family to pay for his defense.
It’s highly unusual for the government to push this issue, according to Mike Kendall, a former federal prosecutor who worked on several organized crime cases that generated evidence used against Bulger.
“If a family member comes forward to offer to pay for a defense, you then may be able to question them about the source of the funds and why they are doing it. But I’ve never heard of the government saying you should ask a family member if they’ll pay for a defense,” Kendall said.
Kendall, who represented the family of former Bulger associate Steven Flemmi, said this should be resolved quickly so Bulger doesn’t “die of old age” before being tried.
“If one looks at the big picture, the most important thing is to get him an attorney quickly so he can go to trial quickly, because that’s what all the victims of crimes want to see,” Kendall said.
The trial is expected to be long and expensive, says criminal lawyer Chapman.
“He’s going to need two, three or even four lawyers working full-time for the next year to two years, preparing and mounting his defense,” Chapman said. “I don’t think that even if he got that $800,000 back he would have enough to afford what he’s going to need to defend this case.”
The prosecution argues Bulger “has every incentive to lie and stick the taxpayers with the bill for his defense.” Bulger’s temporary lawyer said that claim is “unsupportable.”