Whitey Bulger defense: Star witness lied before, could be lying now

The defense for crime boss James 'Whitey' Bulger might have poked some holes in the testimony of key witness John Martorano, but it still faces an uphill battle.

Bill Sikes/AP
Defense attorneys for James 'Whitey' Bulger, J.W. Carney Jr. (l.) and Henry Brennan leave US District Court in Boston last week. Bulger faces a long list of crimes, including extortion and playing a role in 19 killings.

A gangster’s warped code of honor came to the forefront Tuesday at the trial of crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger.

John Martorano, called to testify as a former associate of Mr. Bulger, told of killing people – often at Mr. Bulger’s behest and often while feeling a sense of honor and integrity.

“Family and friends come first,” he said in describing the code behind his actions.

Those words came as defense attorneys, in questioning Mr. Martorano, sought to erode his credibility as a witness against Bulger. The Boston-area gang leader stands accused of racketeering crimes that include 19 murders. Some of the central evidence against him will come from former associates including Martorano.

On the defense side of the case, Bulger seems intent on emphasizing his own personal code, with defense attorneys arguing in particular that their client is not guilty in the strangling deaths of two women in the 1980s, or of acting as an informant to the FBI.

Martorano, while not a central witness in those cases, testified that Bulger had a role in a string of killings – plotting them, driving cars, cleaning up blood, and sometimes pulling the trigger himself.

Other partners in Bulger’s crime group, Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi and Kevin Weeks, are also expected to testify against Bulger. During the trial’s opening statements, Bulger defense attorney Jay Carney said these men all had a powerful reason – the goal of lightening their own sentences – to provide testimony that serves prosecutors’ interests.

Martorano, for example, served only 12 years in prison despite confessing to 10 murders and other crimes. Mr. Carney said the government provided an “extraordinary benefit” in return for Martorano’s testimony – first against FBI Agent John Connolly (convicted of crimes as a corrupt agent working with Bulger) and now against Bulger.

Another attorney for the defense, Hank Brennan, took up that line of attack Tuesday against Martorano.

“You were a convincing liar?” Mr. Brennan asked.

“I guess I was that night,” Martorano replied, referring to one instance when he acknowledged luring a friend and colleague to Florida, after Bulger insisted that the individual needed to be killed. Martorano walked his friend to a car and then shot him in the head.

Regarding many of the killings, Martorano said he felt justified by motives such as self-defense, aiding a friend, or helping his brother avoid trouble.

Referring to such motives, Brennan asked if that was the kind of honor and integrity Martorano felt.

“That’s the way I felt then,” he replied.

He said he was “always taught to take care of my family and friends,” and that he had heard priests and nuns saying that Judas was the “worst person in world.”

Earlier in the day, responding to an attorney for the prosecution, Martorano said he regretted his life in crime.

He described killing an innocent young woman and man, in a car with one of his intended victims, as “the worst thing I did.”

But one shooting seemed to lead to another. Sometimes a person was killed because he was a potential witness on another killing. “We were up to our necks in murders,” Martorano said at one point.

Martorano rejected the notion that he deserved the title “serial killer,” saying he never enjoyed the act, and that he hasn’t killed anyone since 1982. A day earlier, he similarly rejected the label “hit man,” saying he never killed for a fee.

Brennan probed Martorano’s motives for agreeing to testify about the murders that he and colleagues committed.

That step occurred, Brennan said, at a time when both Martorano and Mr. Flemmi were under arrest, and after Martorano had learned to his surprise that Flemmi had been serving as an informant to the FBI for years.

“I wanted to make sure that I got the correct story across,” Martorano said, citing the risk that Flemmi might cut a deal and talk to prosecutors about the murders.

“You wanted a deal,” rather than just to tell the truth, Brennan followed.

“Correct,” Martorano said.

If the defense may have succeeded in poking holes in Martorano’s credibility, it remains to be seen whether that will affect the outcome when the jury deliberates. A challenge for Bulger is that his own credibility, if he testifies, can be challenged on similar grounds. And he will have more than one witness – not just Martorano – lined up against him.

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