BOSTON – James “Whitey” Bulger’s lawyers tried to put the government itself on trial during closing arguments Monday, accusing federal prosecutors of making sweetheart deals with ruthless killers to put the reputed Boston crime boss behind bars.
A prosecutor, meanwhile, summed up the government’s case by calling Bulger “one of the most vicious, violent and calculating criminals ever to walk the streets of Boston,” and urged the jury to convict him of charges that include 19 killings committed during the 1970s and ’80s.
The jury is expected to begin deliberating Tuesday in the racketeering case against the 83-year-old Bulger, whose 16 years on the run embarrassed the FBI and exposed the bureau’s corrupt relationship with its underworld informants.
Bulger’s lawyers attacked the credibility of three key government witnesses: former hit man John Martorano, one-time Bulger protege Kevin Weeks and mobster Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi.
Defense attorney J.W. Carney Jr. said the three former Bulger loyalists decided to “add a little Bulger to the mix” to almost every crime they were questioned about so they could get time shaved off their sentences.
Carney argued that their testimony was bought and paid for by prosecutors.
“The witnesses are selling their testimony to the government,” Carney said. “The currency that’s used here: How much freedom is the person going to get? The currency is the power of the government to keep someone locked up in a cell, surrounded by four concrete walls topped by barbed wires.”
Martorano and Weeks have completed their prison sentences and are free. Flemmi struck a deal to avoid the death penalty and is serving a life sentence.
The defense went after Flemmi in particular, saying Flemmi, not Bulger, had a motive to kill the two women who are among the 19 murder victims. According to testimony, Flemmi had been sexually abusing one of the women – his own stepdaughter – for years.
“He killed his stepdaughter so she wouldn’t say what he had been doing to her,” Carney said.
Bulger fled Boston in 1994 after being tipped off by a retired FBI agent about his indictment. He was one of the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives until he was captured with his longtime girlfriend in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011.
Prosecutors say Bulger was secretly working as an FBI informant while the bodies piled up over the years – a claim his lawyers have strongly disputed.
During the government’s closing argument, prosecutor Fred Wyshak recounted grisly details of the killings Bulger is accused of committing or orchestrating.
Among the victims, he told the jury, were two men who were chained to chairs for hours, interrogated, then shot in the head, two women who were strangled, and two men who died in a hail of gunfire as they left a South Boston restaurant.
Wyshak said Bulger, as the boss of the Winter Hill Gang, South Boston’s Irish mob, was a hands-on killer who carried out many of the slayings himself.
He described the gang’s array of guns, knives, a souped-up “hit car” and walkie-talkies used when the group decided to kill someone.
“They hunted their targets,” Wyshak said. “These men didn’t hunt animals, ladies and gentlemen, they hunted people.”
In addition to the killings, Bulger is accused of numerous instances of extortion, money laundering and hoarding of guns.
Wyshak reminded the jury that witness after witness testified that Bulger was the boss, that he ran the gang and oversaw all its activities.
“It’s humorous to have them stand up here and say these crimes were committed by Weeks, Flemmi and Martorano, not by Bulger, that he was just thrown in,” Wyshak said.
Prosecution witnesses and Bulger’s own lawyers said that Bulger gave payoffs to a half-dozen FBI agents, at least one state trooper and Boston police officers to get information on search warrants, wiretaps and investigations so he could stay one step ahead of indictments.
But Wyshak suggested that Bulger’s lawyers were trying to divert attention away from Bulger by focusing on FBI corruption. Wyshak noted that Carney, in his closing argument, never said his client was not guilty.
During the trial, Bulger’s lawyers spent much of their time disputing allegations he was a “rat” who informed on the rival Italian mob and people in his own gang.
In addition, the defense tried to counter allegations Bulger strangled women –something he also apparently considered a violation of his underworld code of honor.