BOSTON — "Family and friends come first," John Martorano, an aging gangster known as the Executioner, declared from the witness stand Tuesday.
"My father always taught me that. The priests and the nuns I grew up with taught me that. They taught me that Judas — Judas was the worst person in the world."
Just a few days into testimony at one of the most sensational criminal trials in this city's history, it is clear that something more is at stake than the racketeering and murder charges in the 32-count indictment against James "Whitey" Bulger, the notorious ruler of Boston's underworld in the 1970s and '80s.
The trial has focused in its early days on the criminals' concepts of honor and loyalty, codes they say they lived by.
Martorano, who has confessed to 20 murders, took offense at being called a "mass murderer," did not like the term "hit man" and rejected the label "serial killer." He preferred the term "vigilante," seeing in it the noble pursuit of protecting friends and family, especially if they were being hurt or double-crossed or could be hurt or double-crossed.
"Is there any honor or integrity in what you did?" Martorano was asked under relentless cross-examination Tuesday by Henry Brennan, a defense lawyer.
"I thought so," Martorano, 72, replied. "I thought both. I didn't like risking my life, but I thought if the reason was right, I'd try."
That concept of honor has been a subtext of this trial since it opened last week. Bulger's lead lawyer, J.W. Carney, took the unusual tack of acknowledging that his client was guilty of several charges against him, including drug dealing and loan-sharking. But, the lawyer insisted, Bulger, 83, was never an FBI informant, as the prosecution alleges. Nor, he said, did Bulger kill the two women on the list of 19 homicides he is accused of participating in. The code prohibits the killing of women.
With an aggressive cross-examination, the defense hopes to discredit Martorano, who served 12 years in prison after he cut a deal with prosecutors and agreed to testify against Bulger, who fled Boston in 1994 and was arrested in 2011.