BOSTON (Reuters) - The Court of Appeals on Thursday agreed to remove the lower court judge who had been hearing the case against accused mobster James "Whitey" Bulger, saying the official's prior role as a prosecutor called his impartiality into question.
The defendant's attorney had asked the appeals court to remove District Court Judge Richard Stearns from the case because Stearns had worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston when prosecutors were developing the case against Bulger.
"It is clear that a reasonable person would question the capacity for impartiality of any judicial officer with the judge's particular background in the federal prosecutorial apparatus," First Circuit appeals court Associate Justice David Souter wrote in his decision.
Now 83, Bulger is facing trial on charges that he committed or ordered 19 murders in the 1970s and '80s. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
Stearns had worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston in the 1980s, at a time when the FBI was investigating Bulger's alleged role as leader of the city's Winter Hill crime gang.
During the investigation into Bulger's gang, prosecutorial duties for organized crime had been split between the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston and a second team, called the New England Organized Crime Strike Force.
Since the strike force had worked to develop the government's case against Bulger, Stearns had argued that his roles at the U.S. Attorney's Office did not compromise his impartiality.
Souter, a retired Supreme Court justice, noted that the two teams had not been "free from communication".
Souter said his decision reflected only that a person could reasonably question Stearns' impartiality, and did not represent a conclusion that Stearns was biased.
The case stands as something of a black mark on the history of Boston law enforcement, with FBI officials and prosecutors having turned a blind eye to the alleged crimes of Bulger's gang while focusing on rival crime organizations.
Bulger says he received immunity from former assistant U.S. attorney Jeremiah O'Sullivan, now deceased.
Bulger's lawyer, J.W. Carney of Carney & Bassil, surprised observers of the case last month when he said his client had never served as a government informant. He declined to say why a prosecutor would have given Bulger immunity if not in exchange for information.
Stearns, Carney and prosecutors did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Bulger was arrested in 2011 following 16 years on the run after he fled Boston on a tip from a corrupt FBI agent that arrest was imminent.
His name was prominent on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list and his case inspired Martin Scorsese's 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed".
(Additional reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by Dale Hudson and Gerald E. McCormick)
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