By Daniel Lovering
BOSTON (Reuters) - Photos that show James "Whitey" Bulger with poodles, parrots and at least one baby goat prompted the judge at his murder and racketeering trial to speculate that the notorious mobster may take the stand to try and show jurors his human side.
Judge Denise Casper said she thought defense lawyers asked to enter the photos as evidence "in anticipation of Mr. Bulger possibly taking the stand." Bulger, longtime head of Boston's Winter Hill crime gang, has been charged with participating in 19 murders, and speculation has been mounting that he may take the stand in his own defense.
Prosecutors spent the first seven weeks of the trial calling on former hit men, smugglers, and extortion victims who depicted the 83-year-old Bulger as a cold-blooded killer who ruled Boston's underworld in the 1970s and '80s.
Defense attorneys have been working to undermine that image. This week they filed a batch of photographs at the U.S. District Court in Boston showing Bulger relaxing with pets and friends.
One photo shows Bulger leaning back in an armchair wearing a bathrobe and surrounded by poodles. In others, he is hugging a black baby goat or posing with parrots. There is a photo of Bulger with a priest and in another he is with hockey player Chris Nilan next to the NHL's Stanley Cup.
Casper did not immediately rule on whether she would allow the photographs to be shown to the jury, saying Bulger's lawyers must decide by Friday whether Bulger will testify or not.
U.S. prosecutor Fred Wyshak said on Thursday that including the new photos of Bulger in the trial was "totally improper" adding that "I don't know if being an animal lover is going to salvage his reputation."
Bulger, whose gang carried out extortion, gambling and drug smuggling rackets, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, although his attorneys have admitted that he had been involved in organized crime.
Bulger's story has captured Boston's imagination for decades, and also recalled a dark period for Boston's FBI when corrupt agents wined and dined gangsters and gave them tips that helped them evade arrest and identify snitches.
Bulger's defense has pointed out that many of the government's witnesses were neck deep in crime themselves, and suggested that evidence from Boston's FBI office could be tainted by widespread corruption and mismanagement.
The defense also has focused on countering charges that Bulger strangled two women in the early 1980s and was an informant for the FBI. Bulger has vehemently denied that he was an informant, or a "rat" in mob parlance.
On Thursday, former FBI agent Matthew Cronin added heft to claims the agency was ill-managed when he testified that then-supervisor John Morris, in the presence of another agent John Connolly, had once asked him to remove certain names from a wire tap affidavit to protect them.
"As a matter of cooperation, I had no problem taking them out," Cronin said. Connolly, an agent who dealt with Bulger for years, was later jailed for corruption. Morris was granted immunity from prosecution for his testimony during 1998 federal hearings about FBI misconduct.
Bulger fled Boston after a 1994 tip from Connolly of impending arrest and spent 16 years as a fugitive before law enforcement finally caught him hiding out in a seaside apartment in California in 2011, with a stash of money and guns.
Michael Kendall, a partner at the Boston law firm McDermott Will & Emory and a former federal prosecutor who investigated some of Bulger's associates, said the defense strategy to "humanize" Bulger with the new photos would likely have little effect on the trial's outcome.
"I can show you pictures of Hitler with Eva Braun and their dog, and that won't affect our view of history," he said.
(This story has been corrected to show that ex-FBI agent Morris requested names be removed from a wire tap in paragraph 12)
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by David Gregorio)