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Lawyers close 'Whitey' Bulger trial, focus on mob witnesses

Former mob boss and fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger is seen in a booking mug photo released to Reuters on August 1, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Marsha
Former mob boss and fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger is seen in a booking mug photo released to Reuters on August 1, 2011. REUTERS/U.S. Marsha

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) - Prosecutors on Monday told jurors that James "Whitey" Bulger was the "vicious, violent and calculating" Boston mob boss his former gang mates had described at his murder and racketeering trial, while defense attorneys urged jurors not to trust career criminals who had cut plea deals.

Each side's closing statement focused on testimony of three former members of Bulger's "Winter Hill" gang who described 19 murders the defendant was charged with committing or ordering in the 1970s and '80s.

"The evidence in this trial has convincingly proven that the defendant was one of the most vicious, violent and calculating criminals to ever walk the streets of Boston," assistant U.S. attorney Fred Wyshak said in summing up the eight-week-long trial.

Bulger, 83, has pleaded not guilty to all criminal counts and the jury is expected to begin deliberating on Tuesday.

Wyshak recounted the testimony of three top Bulger allies: Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi, John "The Executioner" Martorano and Kevin Weeks. The former members of Bulger's gang testified that Bulger ordered or himself carried out murders of gangland rivals, suspected informants and two women. They also testified about extortion schemes in which Bulger's gang shook down both fellow criminals and local business owners.

"These men were the scariest people walking the streets of Boston," Wyshak said.

'BUYING TESTIMONY'

Bulger's attorneys asked whether jurors could believe the word of three convicted criminals who got more lenient sentences for testifying against Bulger. Martorano served 12 years after confessing to 20 murders and Weeks served five years after admitting a role in five killings. Flemmi, the last to cooperate with prosecutors, is serving a life sentence but avoided the death penalty.

"The government is buying the testimony of these witnesses. Sounds pretty awful if you put it that way doesn't it?" said defense attorney J.W. Carney. "The currency that's used here? How much freedom is this person going to get."

Defense attorney Henry Brennan suggested that in focusing on Bulger and his relationship with corrupt FBI agent John Connolly, prosecutors sought to distract the jury from what they described as a twisted law-enforcement culture where agents who shared Bulger's Irish ethnicity overlooked his crimes as they focused on the Italian-American Mafia.

"Did they give those people deals because they liked them or to protect something more important to them - themselves?" Brennan asked

Bulger, who has lost the shock of light hair that earned him the nickname "Whitey" in his youth, sat quietly in court writing notes in a yellow legal pad.

His story has fascinated Boston for years. He rose from living in a gritty housing project to become the city's most feared crime lord while his brother, William, wielded political power, rising to president of the Massachusetts state senate.

The gangster served time in Alcatraz early in his long criminal career. After escaping Boston on a tip from a corrupt FBI agent that arrest was imminent, he lived as a fugitive for 16 years before his capture in California two years ago.

His story inspired the character played by Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese's Academy Award-winning film "The Departed."

During the trial, the defense admitted Bulger had been a drug dealer, extortionist and loan shark, in short, an "organized criminal." They argued most strenuously against one government assertion: that Bulger was an FBI informant, who rose to power with the help of corrupt law enforcement agents who turned a blind eye to his crimes.

BLACK ERA FOR FBI IN BOSTON

Wyshak on Monday showed the jury a 700-page file that Connolly produced over more than a decade of regular meetings with Bulger and Flemmi, which recounted tips they had provided about rival gangs, some true and some not.

Bulger adamantly denies having served as an informant, or "rat" in gang parlance, contending he paid Connolly off and that the agent invented the contents of the file to provide a cover for his regular meetings with the mobster.

Bulger's profane outbursts in the courtroom have been triggered by former criminal associates' assertions that he was an informant.

"This trial is not about whether Mr. Bulger was an FBI informant," Wyshak said. "Why has it been so hotly contested in this trial? Because Mr. Bulger cares more about his reputation as an FBI informant than he does about his reputation as a murderous thug."

Connolly is serving a 40-year prison sentence for murder and racketeering.

The former associates who testified against Bulger also bristled at the idea of being labeled "rats." Defense attorney Carney questioned the contention in Martorano's testimony that the news Bulger had been an informant "broke my heart."

Pointing out that Martorano had provided detailed, dispassionate testimony on a series of murders, Carney quipped: "I think if you did a CT-scan, you'd have trouble finding a heart in this guy."

(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by David Gregorio)

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