BOSTON — Even if the slight, bespectacled old guy who smiled as he wished prospective jurors a good morning were the only other soul in a subway car after midnight, you might not bother to watch him out of the corner of your eye. At 83, accused crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger is awfully thin, and nearly bald. In white tennis shoes and jeans held up with a cotton belt, he’s clean-shaven these days, and with his arms crossed over his chest at the defense table, utterly unintimidating.

James “Whitey” Bulger in a booking photo taken in June of 2011. (AP)

The racketeering case he goes on trial for here this week reaches back four decades. It reanimates a world of fedora-wearing gangsters with nicknames like “The Rifleman,” and at least one woman, Bulger’s second-favorite mistress, Catherine Greig, who’d wait up all night in full makeup keeping a second dinner warm.

The 19 murders and other crimes the Winter Hill Gang’s reputed boss is charged with may as well have happened on another world, too, since the now spiffy waterfront neighborhood around the new Southie courthouse near where Bulger grew up is as changed as the defendant — built over, buffed up, and renamed Seaport.

“It used to be scary to come down here when we were kids,” says retired Norfolk County prosecutor Matt Connolly (no relation to Bulger’s FBI handler, John Connolly, who’s already doing time). Matt Connolly, who spent much of his career trying to build a case against Bulger, is in the courtroom to see how the story ends; in his telling, the FBI wasn’t about to let him get near its prized source of bad information, and intervened as necessary.

That’s why the bureau will be on trial here, too, in the court of public opinion, anyway. At a time when its officials stand accused of both trampling civil liberties and blowing off intelligence that the Russians claim could have headed off the Marathon bombings, it might be easier to find 12 jurors and six alternates with an open mind about Bulger, a man accused of killing two 26-year-old women with his bare hands.

Throughout his adult life, the defendant has been connected in multiple ways; his brother, William “Billy” Bulger, was the president of the Massachusetts Senate and president of the University of Massachusetts. But surely the most over-the-top aspect of his whole cinematic saga is how, back when the FBI’s top priority was going after La Cosa Nostra, the head of the equally deadly Irish mob could have been recruited to inform on his Italian rivals, and purportedly allowed to use the assignment as a tidy formula for killing some enemies, then informing his handlers that other enemies were responsible.

Most remarkable of all to me is that even after the Boston Globe first published a report that Bulger was an FBI informant in 1988, absolutely nothing changed, because even the mob couldn’t believe the FBI would be so venal as to throw in with a guy like him.

Somehow, Bulger is both denying he was ever a government informant and, at least according to the prosecution, still angling to cite the immunity deal he says he was promised as his defense. U.S. District Judge Denise Casper has ruled that the defendant’s 700-page FBI informant file can be admitted as evidence, but that any immunity agreement is “not a defense to the crimes charged.”

Still, both the prosecution and the defense will be hitting as hard as they can on the theme of government corruption, with the state arguing that some of the crimes happened as a direct result of the FBI’s corrupt deal with Bulger.

Though he says he’s innocent of all 32 criminal counts against him, it’s the killing of Debra Davis and Deborah Hussey that he most vehemently denies, according to letters obtained by journalists at the Boston Globe. Davis was his partner Steve Flemmi’s girlfriend, who was trying to break up with him, and Hussey the daughter of another of Flemmi’s companions. Her crime was accusing Flemmi, who has pleaded guilty to 10 murders, of sexually assaulting her from the time she was a kid.

In Bulger’s preferred version of his career, however, he stayed true to his own code and would never hurt a woman. He also likes to position only woman left in his own life as his reason to stay alive now.

When Bulger’s common-law wife, Teresa Stanley, grew tired of life on the run, just a month after he disappeared in 1995, he dropped her back off in Boston and picked up Catherine Greig, who spent the next 16 years in hiding with him and was arrested with him in Santa Monica two years ago this month.

According to the excellent “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought him to Justice,” by Boston Globe journalists Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, Bulger these days paints himself as all about protecting the love of his life, determined to “hang in there for Catherine’s sake,” until she gets out of prison in eight years.

Maybe you’re thinking the state will need to locate some jurors from another time and place, because everybody in Boston has surely heard about Bulger, on whom the Jack Nicholson character in the movie “The Departed” was loosely based. (Incredibly, the same FBI unit that worked with Bulger — and tipped him off that he was going to be arrested — was put in charge of searching for him after he left town, and even ignored a report that he’d shown up for the San Diego opening of “The Departed,” according to Murphy and Cullen’s book.)

But Judge Casper tried to sell potential jurors on the benefits of sitting on a jury on a trial expected to last four months: “Your participation in this case — or frankly, any case — is no small thing,” she acknowledged. Yet jurors often say it turns out to have been “one of the most interesting of their lives.” (You said a mouthful there, your honor.)

Then Bulger’s attorney, J.W. Carney Jr. said, “I’m pleased to introduce our client, Mr. James Bulger,” and the slight man with a big reputation greeted a group of those who will write the ending for Bulger’s story.

Melinda Henneberger
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor who has spent the last semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.