BOSTON - Reputed Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger and his gang acted as "judge, jury and sometimes executioners" in committing gruesome crimes, US federal prosecutors said Monday in their closing arguments.
The remarks follow weeks of chilling testimony in a Massachusetts courthouse about murders and other crimes attributed to Bulger. The defence has questioned the credibility of the government's key witnesses, saying jurors can't believe them beyond a reasonable doubt.
Bulger, 83, is charged with 19 murders as well as extortion, money laundering and arms trafficking. He was arrested in California in 2011 after spending 16 years on the run.
"The Winter Hill gang and the Mafia acted as judge, jury and sometimes executioners in any dispute. They act as the law in the criminal world," prosecutor Fred Wyshak said of the group Bulger ran.
"The evidence in this case is overwhelming. As leader, he is legally responsible for it all," the lawyer said.
Prosecutors called 63 witnesses in the trial that began June 4. Some recounted harrowing tales of murder victims having their teeth removed to block posthumous identification and a mobster's girlfriend being strangled to death because she "knew too much."
"You jurors can find Bulger guilty of murder or conspiracy to commit murder," Wyshak said, calling Bulger "depraved" for his "horrid" crimes.
But in his closing arguments, defence lawyer Jay W. Carney Jr. took aim at the government's three main witnesses - former Bulger associates who turned on him.
These included Stephen Flemmi, aka "The Rifleman," who was, according to his own account, Bulger's right-hand man and executioner for two decades.
Flemmi is now serving a life sentence without parole for murder, having testified against several former partners in crime as part of a deal that enabled him to avoid the death penalty.
"The government is buying the testimony of these witnesses," Carney said. "The currency that's used here is how much freedom is this person going to get?"
Jurors should evaluate the witnesses based upon their moral character, standards and motivations.
"Call me old fashioned but that means something," he said.
He also urged jurors - who begin deliberations Tuesday on Bulger's fate - to take a stand.
"There's one instance when a small group of people can stand up to the federal government - you are these folks," he said.
"There are serial murderers walking free among us because of the government. That's how the system works."
Bulger declined to testify last week, calling the trial a sham. He has asserted that federal agents granted him immunity from prosecution during his years operating as boss of the Boston underworld.
Bulger denies having been an informant for the FBI but close links between his Winter Hill Gang and some agents in the 1970s and 80s are well documented.
Wyshak downplayed the importance of the issue, however, saying "it doesn't matter if he's an informant. He's a murderer."
Prosecutors have said Bulger became an informant for the FBI to protect his criminal enterprises.
Bulger's case was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson's character in the Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese film "The Departed," which came out in 2006.
After fleeing Boston, Bulger lived under a false name in Santa Monica, California, along with his partner, Catherine Greig, 22 years his junior.
Greig was also arrested and sentenced in June 2012 to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to helping protect the fugitive.