By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Lawyers for James "Whitey" Bulger on Tuesday sought to raise doubts about the accuracy of a 700-page informant file - a key piece of evidence in the trial - that a now-disgraced FBI agent had kept on the accused mob boss.
The file, developed through the 1970s and '80s when Bulger is accused of murdering or ordering the murder of 19 people, is a core part of the evidence against Bulger. Jurors this week heard extensive testimony, based on the file, about meetings during which Bulger provided tips on gangland rivals to his FBI handlers, including John Connolly.
Bulger's attorneys focused their cross-examination of FBI Special Agent James Marra, who headed the Justice Department probe that lead to Connolly's conviction on murder and racketeering charges, on how the bureau protected "top echelon" informants such as Bulger.
Bulger, through his attorneys, has denied ever being an FBI informant, arguing that he paid Connolly for information but never provided tips of his own.
The 83-year-old defendant, whose story inspired Martin Scorsese's 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed," has pleaded not guilty to all charges and faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
"Can you confirm firsthand that (Bulger) gave any of that information?" Bulger attorney Henry Brennan, of the Boston law firm Carney & Bassil, asked Marra.
"Firsthand? No," the agent replied.
"The federal government went out of their way on many occasions to protect their informants, didn't they?" Brennan later asked.
"It was clear to me that John Connolly was protecting them," Marra replied.
Connolly is currently serving a prison sentence on racketeering and murder charges. His former boss, John Morris, is due to take the stand as soon as Tuesday.
Jurors also heard on Tuesday how Connolly had set up alerts in Justice Department computer systems that ensured he was tipped off whenever another law enforcement agent ran a background check on Bulger.
Bulger's case stands as a black mark on Boston law enforcement history, as Connolly, who shared Bulger's Irish background, turned a blind eye to the crimes Bulger is accused of committing in exchange for information on the doings of the Italian Mafia. The Mafia at the time was the top priority of the U.S. Justice Department.
Marra also acknowledged that agents such as Connolly received financial incentives from the FBI to develop high-level informants such as Bulger.
"I don't know if it was an enormous incentive, but the agents were encouraged to cultivate informants," Marra said.
Bulger's attorneys have argued that Connolly made up at least some of the information in Bulger's file to justify his frequent meetings with the gangster.
Prosecutors have scoffed at the idea that Bulger was not an informant - noting that he met with several other FBI agents and supervisors in addition to Connolly.
In an exchange before jurors were brought into the courtroom on Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly accused Bulger's defense of wanting to "play the game of ‘Let's pretend. Let's pretend he wasn't an informant.'"
Bulger's story has fascinated Boston for decades. He was one of two brothers to rise from gritty South Boston to positions of power - James as a feared gangster, his brother William as the powerful speaker of the state senate.
"Whitey" Bulger fled the city after a 1994 tip from Connolly that arrest was imminent. He spent 16 years evading arrest, many of them on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list, before authorities caught up with him in a seaside apartment in Santa Monica, California, a little more than two years ago.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Douglas Royalty)