The confessed 20-time killer who has emerged as James "Whitey" Bulger's chief accuser suffered a relentless grilling Wednesday by defense lawyers who portrayed him as a self-serving liar who cut a deal with prosecutors to stay off death row.
Bulger lawyer Hank Brennan's often-biting cross-examination of hit man and ex-Bulger partner John Martorano focused on Martorano's cooperation agreement with the government – a document that even top Massachusetts law enforcement officers have called repugnant.
Martorano and his lawyers began negotiating the plea bargain deal shortly after his 1995 capture in Florida, where he had fled 17 years earlier from charges that he was paying jockies to throw horse races at east coast tracks. Back in Boston, federal prosecutors named him in a new racketeering indictment, with long time partners Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi.
While in jail, Martorano said he learned that Bulger and Flemmi, after whom he named the youngest of his five children, had been working for decades as secret FBI informants. That information, Martorano conceded, was a factor in his decision to, as Brennan phrased it, "join the government team."
The resulting cooperation agreement required Martorano to serve only 12-1/2 years in prison for 20 murders. He avoided separate prosecutions for murders he committed in death penalty states Florida and Oklahoma. The government agreed it would not confiscate a house he bought in Florida with gambling and loansharking profits. And it kept a balance of $400 or so in his commissary account at the special informant prison where he served his time.
The deal doesn't restrict how Martorano earns a living, as long as he does it legally. He said when he began testifying on Monday that he now exists on social security payments. He later disclosed that he has made more than $300,000 in recent years by selling rights to his life story to a book publisher and movie producer.
"I paid taxes on it," Martorano told Brennan.
Prosecutors said Martorano's confession allowed police to close the books on eight, decades-old murder cases. And they said they could not prosecute Bulger without Martorano's testimony.
Brennan implied in his questions, some of which were intended to provoke as much as elicit answers, that Martorano used the government's desire to prosecute Bulger as leverage in plea bargain negotiations and is now falsely involving Bulger in his crimes to protect the deal.
"When you began thinking about what you could do to get onto the government's team you knew you had to give them something of value, didn't you?" Brennan said.
"I didn't know what would develop at the time," Martorano said.
Brennan bored in on the 17 years Martorano was a fugitive in Florida, a period in which the government said Bulger, Flemmi, Martorano and others in their Winter Hill gang plotted with two corrupt FBI agents to kill three people associated with the jai alai industry.
Martorano has testified that Bulger approved, helped plan and in one case, participated in the jai alai killings. But Martorano conceded he had little direct knowledge and rarely spoke with Bulger during his time on the run. He said Bulger didn't trust telephones.
"When I left in 1978, he said, 'I'm not going to be on the phone much.' He didn't care for phones," Martorano said.
When Martorano left for Florida, he said Bulger told him to communicate through Flemmi.
"Did you work for Mr. Bulger?" Brennan asked. "Did he tell you what to do?"
"Whitey wasn't my boss," Martorano said. "If he wanted to get something done I would usually listen to him. He usually knew the right buttons to push to get something done."
Brennan ridiculed Martorano's assertion that Bulger was "on board" with a plan in 1981 to kill Tulsa, Okla. tycoon and World Jai Alai owner Roger Wheeler. Martorano said he shot Wheeler between the eyes in an unsuccessful attempt to take over Wheeler's pari-mutual business.
"On the Wheeler murder – you didn't speak to Bulger," Brennan said. "He didn't say to you, 'Why don't you go slaughter someone you don't even know?'."
Martorano, who for three days described his 20 murders like he was reading from a warehouse inventory, maintained his composure.
"I heard it through Stevie," he answered.
Then Brennan fired off a series of loaded questions challenging Martorano's claim that he never, or at least rarely, lied.
The first had to do with Martorano's knowledge that one of law enforcement's top targets in the Bulger investigation was John Connolly, a crooked FBI agent who Bulger was paying for information. Connolly is serving 40 years in a Florida prison after being convicted of providing Bulger confidential FBI information that the Winter Hill gang used to murder informants.
"You knew, didn't you, that the government wanted Connolly and you couldn't help because you had never spoken to Connolly," Brennan said. "But you knew you could make the government happy by informing on Connelly by throwing Bulger into the equation."
"I didn't see it that way," Martorano said..
Brennan asked Martorano to explain a lie to his former best friend John B. Callahan, the former president of World Jai Alai. Martorano has admitted that he was reluctantly setting up Callahan's murder. He said he shot Callahan in the head after being pressed by Bulger. He said Bulger had learned from Connolly that Callahan was likely to turn informer on the Wheeler murder.
"You even lied to your friend John Callahan before you killed him, didn't you?," Brennan said.
"That to me was a necessity," Martorano aid. " I had to tell John I wanted to see him. I couldn't tell him I wanted to shoot him."