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Judge Refuses To Recuse Himself From Bulger Trial

This article is more than 10 years old.

The federal judge presiding over the case of alleged Boston crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger has refused to step aside.

Bulger's attorneys had argued that Judge Richard Stearns should recuse himself from the case because of his previous work as a federal prosecutor. They argue that Stearns would have had knowledge of the crimes Bulger allegedly committed while working as an FBI informant.

WBUR's David Boeri was at the hearing Tuesday and joined WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer to discuss the ruling.

Sacha Pfeiffer: David, I understand the ruling was strongly worded. What did it say?

David Boeri: Yes it's strongly worded if you consider characterizing the defense motion as “untrue,” “unsupported,” “specious” and “sinister” as strong wording.

And the reason Judge Stearns took such umbrage was because J.W. Carney had pointed out that Stearns was a federal prosecutor and the chief of the criminal division in the U.S. attorney’s office here in Boston in the 1980s. And the 1980s are when Bulger and [Stephen] Flemmi were running riot as secret, top-echelon FBI informants in what's now considered one of the greatest acts of corruption in FBI history.

So Bulger's making the argument that he had immunity for his crimes ahead of time. And his attorney says he is considering calling Judge Stearns to the stand as a witness. So you can see the difficulty there.

Right, so Bulger's lawyers say this is a judge who should not be overseeing this case. So what were the reasons that Judge Stearns gave for not recusing himself?

In the ruling, Stearns was absolutely categorical. The ruling states:

At no time during my service as an AUSA [assistant U.S. attorney] did I participate in or have any knowledge of any case or investigation in which the defendant was a subject or target. I have nothing of a relevant or material nature to offer with regard to this case or any claim of immunity.

And then to buttress what he was writing, Stearns cited case law:

A party cannot cast sinister aspersions, fail to provide a factual basis for those aspersions and then claim that the judge must disqualify himself because the aspersions.

So it was categorical: "I had nothing to do with this case. I have no involvement and abcolutely, I will be impartial."

And What did Bulger's attorneys have to say about the judge being unwilling to recuse himself?

Well, let's listen to J.W. Carney outside the courthouse:

Judge Stearns ruled that no reasonable person could believe that it was improper for him to be presiding over the trial of Mr. Bulger. Reasonable members of the general public will be free to express their own views on this issue.

David, could this be laying the groundwork for an appeal later on?

J.W. Carney would not say whether or not he is going to appeal this. It's an uphill climb to be sure. It would go to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, and if it got that far, it would bring in Judge Stearns' connection.

One part of this, again, is the 1980s are so toxic in Boston law enforcement regarding Bulger and Flemmi, is anybody able to withstand that and have the general public believe they're credible.

And one thing would come out of that is that Judge Stearns is a very close friend of Robert Mueller, who was acting U.S. attorney here at the time and is now head of the FBI in a case that clearly looks at one of the greatest corruption cases in FBI history.

This program aired on July 17, 2012.

David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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