By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Lawyers for accused Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger on Monday sought to delay the start of his murder trial, arguing they need time to investigate whether or not police turned a blind eye to possible criminal activity of a witness.
Bulger, 83, was scheduled to go on trial on Wednesday charged with committing or ordering 19 murders while leading Boston's "Winter Hill" crime gang in the 1970s and 80s. He was on the run for 16 years before being captured in a California seaside town in June 2011, a saga that has engrossed Boston.
Bulger's move to delay the opening statements in U.S. District Court in Boston focuses on witness James Martorano, who confessed to 20 murders but served just 12 years in prison after cooperating with authorities and implicating Bulger.
Defense attorney J.W. Carney said prosecutors only acknowledged on Friday that an internal investigation into whether a state trooper assigned to handle Martorano obstructed efforts by a fellow officer to investigate unspecified crimes Martorano may have committed since his release in 2007.
"This 11th-hour revelation creates an unfair prejudice to the defense," Carney argued in court papers, saying he needed time to review the government files on the investigation.
"It is substantive evidence establishing Martorano's bias and motive to lie," he said.
Prosecutors opposed the request, saying they already provided the documents to the defense, along with hundreds of thousands of other pages of evidence the government has amassed against Bulger.
"The government hand-delivered these documents to the defense almost a month ago," U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz wrote in court papers. "The anonymous allegations against a witness (John Martorano) who has already admitted participating in multiple murders, have been thoroughly debunked after an extensive investigation."
Bulger, who also faces racketeering and extortion charges, faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Bulger fled Boston after a 1994 tip from a corrupt FBI agent who told him his arrest was imminent. His case stands as something of a black mark on Boston law enforcement because investigators who shared his Irish background cooperated with Bulger while they focused their investigative efforts on the Italian mafia.
Bulger's story inspired the character played by Jack Nicholson in the 2006 Academy Award-winning movie, "The Departed." Court officials have called in more than 800 potential jurors to find enough impartial people for the panel of 12 members and six alternates.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Grant McCool)