BOSTON — James "Whitey" Bulger is charged with a litany of crimes – including participating in 19 murders – during what prosecutors describe as a decadeslong reign of "murder and mayhem."
But Bulger's lawyers have spent much of their energy defending their client against something he doesn't face criminal charges for: being a longtime FBI informant.
The defense has vehemently denied the prosecution's claim that Bulger was an informant, going so far as to say his Irish heritage would prohibit such a thing.
They've also spent hours trying to discredit a 700-page FBI file that prosecutors say shows Bulger ratted on everyone from mobsters in the Italian Mafia to members of his own gang.
The defense strategy may be coming from Bulger himself.
In "Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought him to Justice," a book published this year, Boston Globe reporters Shelley Murphy and Kevin Cullen include excerpts from letters Bulger wrote to a friend from jail saying he wants to show the world that he did not kill women and he was not a rat.
"I never put one person in prison in my life," he wrote in one of his letters.
During his opening statement to the jury, Bulger's lead attorney, J.W. Carney Jr., referring to Bulger's Irish descent, said becoming an informant was "the worst thing an Irish person could consider doing" because of the history of The Troubles, a violent 30-year conflict in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants that left more than 3,600 people dead.
"James Bulger never ever – the evidence will show – was an informant," Carney said. Instead, he said, Bulger paid FBI agents to protect him from being prosecuted.
Another Bulger attorney, Hank Brennan, has focused on Bulger's informant file, suggesting it was fabricated by former FBI Agent John Connolly, who was convicted of racketeering and second-degree murder for leaking information to Bulger and his partner, Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi.
Brennan spent hours last week questioning former FBI Agent John Morris about reports from other FBI informants that appeared strikingly similar to reports on information Connolly attributed to Bulger. He suggested that Morris and Connolly said Bulger gave them the information to advance their own careers at a time when cultivating informants who could help bring down the Mafia was a national priority for the FBI.
But investigators who spent years trying to build a case against Bulger say there is overwhelming evidence that Bulger spent 15 years as an informant – 1975 to 1990 – providing the FBI with information on local Mafia leaders, drug dealers and even criminals in his own South Boston neighborhood.
"I think clearly his attorney has marching orders from the defendant. He's more obsessed with not being seen as an informant than as a mass killer, which is an absurdity," said Thomas Duffy, a retired state police major who investigated Bulger.
"It doesn't make any sense other than in his own mind. It just has to do with how he wants to be remembered."
Michael Kendall, a former federal prosecutor who investigated several of Bulger's associates, said it's not surprising that Bulger's trial strategy would focus on trying to deny his status as an informant.
"He's had a good run for 83 years, and he realizes he's not going to get out of prison. He's not going to win the trial in terms of a guilty or innocent verdict. So he'll try to win the trial in terms of settling scores or criticizing people he doesn't like or making semantic distinctions on his ratting out his friends to the government," Kendall said.
But others say the defense effort could be part of a larger strategy to highlight the unethical behavior of the FBI in the hope that the jury will be disgusted with the government and less likely to believe its case against Bulger.
"What they are doing is they are attacking the credibility of every single witness to show the breadth and the depth of the corruption within the FBI at the time he allegedly had a relationship with them," said Suffolk University Law School professor Christopher Dearborn.
Before the trial, Carney was asked if he believes his client can receive a fair trial in Boston, where Bulger's name and notorious reputation are so well known.
"Mr. Bulger believes that he will have a fair trial if he is able to present the whole truth concerning his relationship with the Department of Justice and FBI," Carney responded in an email to The Associated Press, "including that he was never an informant."
James "Whitey" Bulger
Gangster. Informant. Fugitive. These are three words that best described Bulger's life in crime. Born in South Boston, he rose to be a powerful figure in organized crime, and was allegedly involved in drug dealing, extortion, loan-sharking, gambling and other illegal activities. Prosecutors allege that he cemented his place atop the underworld through violence, charging him with 19 murders in the 1970s and 1980s. During those years, however, he was also an FBI informant. HIs relationship with the FBI was corrupt and in 1994 the agent he worked with tipped him off about a looming indictment. Bulger skipped town and became one of the most wanted men in America. Finally, in 2011, he was found living under an assumed identity in Santa Monica, Calif. with longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig. This June 23, 2011 booking photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service shows James "Whitey" Bulger after his capture in Santa Monica. (AP Photo/ U.S. Marshals Service, File)
Bulger, through the years
These 1984 file photos released by the FBI show James "Whitey" Bulger. (AP Photo/FBI, file)
Bulger, through the years
These 1953 file Boston police booking photos provided by The Boston Globe show James "Whitey" Bulger after an arrest. (AP Photo/Boston Police via The Boston Globe, File, WCVB-TV, thebostonchannel.com)
Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi
Flemmi was one of Bulger's closest associates in the Winter Hill Gang. He's serving life in prison for 10 murders and is expected to testify as a witness against his former boss, Bulger. In this Sept. 22, 2008 photo, Flemmi is testifying at the trial of corrupt FBI agent John Connolly. (AP Photo/J. Pat Carter, File)
Hit man John Martorano
The prosecution intends to put John Martorano, a hit man who's admitted killing 20 people, in the witness box against Bulger. He served 12 years for the killings. This photo shows him testifying on Sept. 17, 2008 about FBI agent John Connolly, the crooked agent who worked with Bulger when he was an informant for the bureau. (AP Photo/Marice Cohn Band, Pool, File)
Whitey Bulger and Kevin Weeks
Bulger, left and henchman Kevin Weeks strolling on a walk around Castle Island in South Boston in this undated photo. Weeks is one of several former Winter Hill gang members expected to testify against Bulger.
Former FBI Agent John Connolly
Agent Connolly was the FBI handler working with Bulger and his righthand man Stephen Flemmi. Bulger and Flemmi were enlisted as informants, supplying information about the Italian mafia in Boston. But Connolly went rogue and let the Winter Hill Gang off the hook for their own crimes. In 2008, Connolly got a 40-year sentence for helping Bulger's gang murder a businessman in Florida they feared would be a witness against them. Connolly is not expected to testify in Bulger's trial. (Photo by George Rizer/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Catherine Greig, Bulger's girlfriend
This undated photo from the U.S. Marshals Service shows Catherine Greig, the longtime girlfriend of Whitey Bulger, who was captured with him, on June 22, 2011, in Santa Monica, Calif. Greig lost her bid to reduce the 8-year prison sentence she received for helping Bulger during his 16 years as a fugitive. A three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Friday, May 17, 2013, that it found no basis to change the sentence that Greig received after she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor a fugitive, identity fraud and conspiracy to commit identity fraud. . (AP Photo/U.S. Marshals Service, File)
H. Paul Rico
Rico was an FBI agent in Boston who knew a young Bulger and Stephen Flemmi. Later, Rico left the bureau and began working as head of security at World Jai Alai. There, he was reconnected with Flemmi and Bulger, who allegedly skimmed money from the company. He was accused of participating in the murder of Roger Wheeler, a World Jai Alia executive who discovered that gang members were skimming of the top. Rico died in custody in 2004 before gong to trial.
William Bulger, the politician brother of the gangster.
In this May 8, 2003 file photo, William M. Bulger, then-President of the University of Massachusetts, addresses the attendees at the National Public Service Week Recognition Dinner on the campus of Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass. He's the younger brother of Whitey Bulger and was forced out of his university post because of a controversy about his relationship with his fugitive sibling. For years, he was one of the state's most powerful politicians, serving as the president of the state senate. (AP Photo/Robert E. Klein, File)
U.S. Attorney Jeremiah O'Sullivan.
The late U.S. attorney Jeremiah O'Sullivan is seen in this photo. Attorneys for Bulger contend that the former federal prosecutor gave the Winter Hill Gang boss immunity. Former members federal attorney's office in Boston may be called to testify, including Robert Mueller, who became FBI director and William Weld, who became Massachusetts' governor. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Edward G. Connors, murder victim
Connors worked with the Winter Hill Gang, but was not a full-fledged member, according to statements from Stephen Flemmi. He got whacked in a Dorchester phone booth in 1975, according to Flemmi, because he spoke to openly about his role in the killing of James O'Toole. Flemmi said that he and Bulger were ordered to shoot Connors by Howie Winter, who was then the head of the Winter Hill Gang.
James "Spike" O'Toole, murder victim
O'Toole was a South Boston gangster who, according to Winter Hill gang members, tried to kill Stephen Flemmi's brother Vincent Flemmi. Soon after O'Toole completed a prison sentence in 1973 for being an accessory after the fact to a murder, John Martorano ran him over in his car. O'Toole died and Martorano said he was ordered by Bulger to kill him.
Edward Brian Halloran, murder victim
Halloran was a federal informant killed allegedly by Bulger and a masked man in 1982. Halloran's friend Michael Donahue, who had no criminal record, was also killed outside the restaurant where the two had dined.
Roger Wheeler was an Oklahoma businessman who bought World Jai Alai, only to find out that the Winter Hill Gang was siphoning money from the company in a scam. He was killed in 1981 in Tula, because Bulger and his crew feared he'd be a witnesses against them. Rogue FBI agent John Connolly was convicted of helping with the fatal shooting of Wheeler. <em>Correction: An earlier version of this slide incorrectly stated that Wheeler was killed in Florida.</em>
Widow and son of an alleged murder victim
Patricia Donahue, widow of alleged murder victim Michael Donahue, stands with her son, Tommy, outside federal court in Boston, Monday, June 3, 2013, after a pre-trial hearing for accused mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. Jury selection begins Tuesday. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Steven Davis, victim's brother
Steven Davis, the brother of Debra Davis, a woman allegedly killed by James "Whitey" Bulger, stands near the Neponset River where his sister's body was found in Quincy, Mass., on Thursday, June 21, 2012. Davis has been one of the most vocal of the victims' relatives. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Two sisters of Paul McGonagle leave a plea hearing for Catherine Greig, the longtime girlfriend of reputed Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, outside the Federal Courthouse in Boston, Wednesday afternoon, March 14, 2012. Paul McGonagle is among the 19 murders Bulger is accused of committing. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
The charges against Whitey Bulger are being prosecuted by the office of the U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts. That office is led by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. The case is being tried by a team of assistants that includes Fred Wyshak and Brian Kelly.
The defense team
Defense attorneys J.W. Carney Jr., left, and Henry Brennan, right, leave federal court in Boston, Monday, June 3, 2013, after a pre-trial hearing for accused mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. Jury selection begins Tuesday. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)