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As Case Begins, Bulger Pleads Not Guilty On 19 Murder Counts

With his brothers John and William looking on, James "Whitey" Bulger enters not guilty pleas in federal court in Boston Wednesday. Bulger's attorney, J.W. Carney Jr., stands with his client. (Margaret Small for WBUR)

BOSTON — Two weeks to the day following his arrest in California, James “Whitey” Bulger has been formally charged with committing 19 murders and numerous other crimes, many allegedly committed while he was a secret FBI informant.

The 81-year-old longtime fugitive pleaded not guilty Wednesday as the case formally began.

In shackled ankles and a bright orange jumpsuit that accentuated a white beard and even paler skin, Bulger seemed to be a fading specter in his third court appearance. The scowl and snap — gone. Looking all of 81, Bulger managed to wink at his brothers Bill and John in the first row and shuffled to his chair.

“I was not that impressed with how he looked. I don’t think he was the imposing figure he was trying to portray out there,” said retired State Police Col. Tom Foley.

This was the first time Foley had come so close to the decades-long target of his criminal investigation. It was a brief encounter.

“I’ve found Mr. Bulger to be very smart, to have an excellent memory.”
– J.W. Carney, Bulger's attorney

“Does your client understand the charges in the arraignment?” asked the Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler.

“In my opinion, yes he does,” responded Bulger’s court-appointed attorney J.W. Carney.

As is the right of the defense, Bulger waived the reading of the indictment. That meant that for the families of the murder victims who sat in the courtroom there would be no roll call of the dead. Debra Davis, Michael Donahue, Edward Connors, Michael Milano went unnamed. So too did 15 others.

Perhaps their only consolation came from Bulger’s attorney himself.

“I’ve found Mr. Bulger to be very smart, to have an excellent memory,” said Carney.

Carney was emphatic in closing off one possible line of defense.

“I see absolutely no evidence that my client suffers from Alzheimer’s,” he said.

The judge had the clerk address the defendant. As to count 1, how do you plead?

“Not guilty,” came a small voice. Twelve times Bulger answered “not guilty.” It was the only roll call of the day.

If they didn’t fully appreciate “Whitey’s” predicament already, the brothers Bulger could do the math and figure he could be sentenced to life plus another 100 or more years — if convicted.

Though the trial’s start may be distant, on behalf of those unnamed dead, Foley was adamant.

“You’re looking at the truth today,” Foley said. “‘Whitey’ Bulger is in handcuffs and he’s going to trial right now. That never, ever came out before. That is the truth, and he can finally be exposed and is now being held accountable for the people he’s killed. The truth’s coming out.”

How long it will take to get to trial is the big question. Bulger’s attorney suggests it can take two to three years for the normal murder case.

There’s nothing normal about this case. Bulger’s next appearance is scheduled for September.

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