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Judge Denise Casper: ‘Cool, calm and collected’ during Whitey Bulger trial

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The federal courthouse on the waterfront is where New Boston meets Old Boston — and not just geographically.

Inside the brick complex overlooking the refurbished harbor, the Boston Irish Mob stands trial. James M. “Whitey” Bulger, who allegedly ran Southie’s drug and extortion rackets while informing for the FBI, is charged in a sweeping racketeering case. The indictment includes 19 murders, spelled out in grisly detail during testimony over the last few weeks.

Presiding over the case is U.S. District Court Judge Denise J. Casper, who graduated from law school in 1994 — the year Bulger went on the lam, tipped off by his former FBI handler, John Connolly. Casper, the first African American female federal judge to sit in Boston, drew an electronic straw to referee the trial of the notorious South Boston gangster after Judge Richard Stearns was removed from the case because of his ties as a former U.S. Attorney in Boston to many of the players in the courtroom drama.

While the 83-year-old defendant is the only one on trial, a whole way of life is on review every day in Courtroom 11 on the fifth floor of the John J. Moakley Courthouse, named for the late South Boston congressman who lived on the opposite side of the peninsula.

A succession of wise guys, drug dealers, rats, leg-breakers and stone killers has paraded through the courtroom, some of them eliciting snarls and f-bombs from the defendant, who wears white sneakers and casual clothes like the retiree he pretended to be while hiding in plain sight for over a decade in a rent-controlled Santa Monica apartment with his moll girlfriend. An underlying issue at trial is the role of the federal government itself in the alleged crimes of the Southie mob boss — its use of Bulger as an informant and its alleged tolerance and even complicity in the murders of witnesses and informants whose whisperings to federal agents got back to Bulger and his lethal henchmen.

Another wrinkle is the occasional reference to Boston political figures, most notably former Massachusetts Senate President William M. “Billy” Bulger, brother of the defendant, who represented South Boston and ruled the upper chamber on Beacon Hill while his brother allegedly ran the Southie rackets.

The reputation of Boston as a cozy place to conduct crime, with Hibernian mobsters and G-men who grew up together in the Southie projects still working hand-in-glove, is on full display, day after day.

That a black judge sits in judgment over a crime boss whose home precincts formed the hotbed of opposition to racial integration of the Boston schools is an irony lost on very few.

But things change. Alongside the courthouse, the rusting Northern Avenue pedestrian bridge stands as a monument to Boston’s industrial past. The courthouse’s soaring glass atrium windows face the harbor, while its brick back is turned to Fort Point Channel — the heart of Boston’s new “Innovation District”— and the three-deckers and condos of the changing South Boston beyond.

Casper, 45, a former federal and state prosecutor, donned the black robes of the federal judiciary less than three years ago. She was born in 1968, close to a decade after Bulger walked out of Alcatraz, his last confinement before his arrest in California after 16 years on the run. Casper grew up in East Patchogue, a quiet hamlet on the south shore of Long Island halfway between Queens and Montauk, and attended Wesleyan University and Harvard Law School.

Her husband, Marc Casper, is the chief executive officer of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. They have twin sons.

When she steps into the courtroom and gavels the day’s proceedings to begin, every seat is taken. Media from across the world pack the press gallery. Family members of victims sit in reserved rows. Public spectators, many of whom started queuing up before dawn, sit in their few spots while hundreds of others watch the unfolding drama on TV monitors set up in other courtrooms.

In the view of seasoned court-watchers, Casper has handled the textured challenges of the trial with both compassion and discipline. She has tolerated emotional outbursts from victims’ families, reined in attorneys who have attempted to talk over her and handed down nuanced rulings.

“I’m very impressed with her balance and demeanor as a federal judge,” said Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree of his former student. “She’s able to keep a firm hand on what’s going on in a very difficult case. I’m convinced that Judge Casper is the right person at the right time to preside over such a trial.”

“The hallmark of Denise is the balanced and measured approach she brings to a case,” said former Middlesex County District Attorney Gerald Leone, who worked with her in the U.S. Attorney’s office and later made her one of his top deputies in the county prosecutor’s office. Leone, now in private practice with Nixon Peabody, describes Casper as “poised, polished, professional, and always prepared” — and just as importantly, “deeply compassionate.”

“There’s such a human element to her handling. She has given witnesses and lawyers room to present the full human story of the case without compromising its integrity.”

Reporter David Boeri, who has specialized in courtroom coverage during a long career in TV and radio, finds fault with a court system dominated by former prosecutors who he says often bend over backward to accommodate the government’s case.

“I think it’s an unfair situation she’s been put in,” said the WBUR-FM reporter. “She’s the least experienced judge presiding over the most complicated case in the courtroom’s history. Like many new judges, she tends to give more leeway to the prosecution.”

Prime among Boeri’s evidence for his claim is Casper’s ruling denying Bulger’s bid to present an immunity defense to the jury — in other words, an argument that his actions were covered by immunity offered by the government.

“She took away his defense,” he said. “That was not very surprising, given her experience and background.” Noting that eight of the 13 district court judges in Boston previously served as prosecutors, Boeri added, “It’s important to have diversity of color and gender on the bench, but it’s also important to have diversity in the approach to the law.”

Charles Walker, a state administrative judge, called Casper “cool, calm, and collected” and her rulings “deliberate and fair.”

“Whatever happens in this trial,” he said, “it will have nothing to do with the way the judge handled the case.”