Judge Denise J. Casper, the first African American woman to sit as federal judge in Massachusetts, will preside over the trial of mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, replacing the former judge was ordered to step aside because of his former role as a prosecutor, court officials announced Friday.
Casper, who has been a federal judge in Boston since December 2010, replaces Judge Richard G. Stearns who was taken off the case after a federal appellate court ruled Thursday that his role as a former federal prosecutor could create the appearance of bias.
Stearns was a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in the 1980s, when, Bulger claims, another prosecutor promised Bulger immunity for his alleged crimes, including murder.
Casper is also a former prosecutor, but her experiences is more recent than Stearns’.
Bulger, 83, was once a feared figure in Boston’s underworld and is charged in a federal racketeering indictment with participating in 19 murders in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bulger went underground in December 1994 to avoid arrest on federal charges. He was in hiding for 16 years, 12 of which he was on the FBI's 10-most-wanted list.
On June 22, 2011, he was arrested outside an apartment in Santa Monica along with longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig.
The appeals court ruling that took Stearns off of the case was written by retired Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter, who sits on the appeals court in Boston for three months each year.
In the ruling, the appeals court was careful to separate Stearns' impartiality from the appearance of bias. Souter's decision noted that Stearns' impartiality was not in doubt, but that a reasonable person might question it given the circumstances of his past prosecutorial role.
“Our analysis of . relevant facts does not question either Judge Stearns' ability to remain actually impartial or his sincerity in concluding that he is not biased against the defendant, nor do we draw any conclusion that he is biased,” Souter wrote.
“Despite our respect for Judge Stearns and our belief in his sincerity, we are nonetheless bound to conclude that it is clear that a reasonable person might question the judge's ability to preserve impartiality through the course of this prosecution.”