BOSTON — Stephen Flemmi, in his third day of testimony in the trial of his former partner in crime, James (Whitey) Bulger, was having a bad day on the witness stand.
He started off on Monday by naming the wrong brother of one of his victims as someone who was a drug addict and a government informer, prompting an expletive-laced outburst from the brother, who was seated in the courtroom; Mr. Flemmi appeared somewhat shaken and immediately apologized.
He then responded to friendly questions from the prosecution with incomplete answers and had to be prodded again and again to answer more fully and to name the person he kept referring to only as “he,” who was Mr. Bulger.
But that was minor compared with what happened when prosecutors finished their questioning and turned the witness over to Mr. Bulger’s defense lawyers.
Less than five minutes into the cross-examination, Mr. Flemmi got tangled up in whether he had told the truth in previous testimony about his relationship with Deborah Hussey, the daughter of his common-law wife, Marion Hussey. The defense lawyer, Hank Brennan, quickly portrayed Mr. Flemmi as a philanderer who sexually abused the girl when she was barely a teenager and participated in her 1985 murder when she was 26.
The whole point of putting the much-compromised Mr. Flemmi on the stand was to provide jurors with an eyewitness account of how Mr. Bulger, 83, controlled the South Boston underworld in the 1970s and ’80s. In that respect, Mr. Flemmi, 79, known as the Rifleman, did not disappoint as he cast Mr. Bulger as a coldblooded killer, dispensing with anyone who interfered with his illicit activities. Mr. Bulger is on trial now on 32 criminal counts, including playing a role in 19 murders.
But relying on Mr. Flemmi, who is serving the rest of his life in prison for 10 murders, may have been a risky strategy for the prosecution. He admitted to the prosecution that, among other things, he had perjured himself in previous court testimony; under gentle coaxing Monday, he even uttered a public apology to the judge in that case.
In Mr. Flemmi’s telling, Mr. Bulger killed Deborah Hussey with his bare hands, just as he had killed another woman. Ms. Hussey had become a drug addict and was inappropriately flaunting Mr. Bulger’s and Mr. Flemmi’s names around town. Asked if he had a sexual relationship with her, Mr. Flemmi drew a fine distinction, saying: “Intercourse? No.”
Mr. Bulger, he said, concluded that she had to be killed because she was too reckless, and Mr. Flemmi reluctantly agreed. Mr. Flemmi lured her to a house where they had committed other murders. As she walked into the kitchen, he said, Mr. Bulger “grabbed her by the throat and kept strangling her.”
In an awkward moment, “he lost his balance,” Mr. Flemmi said, “and they both ended up on the floor.”
But choking her to death did not take long, he added, because “she was a very fragile woman.”
Once she was dead, Mr. Flemmi said he assumed his usual role, taking the corpse to the basement and removing her clothes and teeth while Mr. Bulger took a nap.
Mr. Brennan began his cross-examination by establishing that Mr. Flemmi fathered various children more or less simultaneously with two different women.
When it came to Marion Hussey’s daughter Debbie, he asked, did Mr. Flemmi help feed her and change her diapers?
“No,” Mr. Flemmi said, “I wasn’t a very domestic person.”
Mr. Brennan pressed him. Wouldn’t she sit in your lap while you read to her? “No, of course not,” Mr. Flemmi said. “I didn’t do that with my own children.”
And yet in previous testimony he had said under oath that she had, Mr. Brennan noted. Was he telling the truth then or now?
Mr. Flemmi became irritated. He said he had been asked questions that he considered boring and insignificant “and I went, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ ”
Mr. Brennan asked him why he wanted to “distance” himself from holding a little girl on his knee, adding, “Is it hard for you to accept the fact that you strangled someone who sat on your knee as a little girl?”
Mr. Flemmi said he did not strangle her.
Mr. Brennan asked him if he was a good father.
He said he was a “good provider” and had protected her so that “nobody would hurt her.”
“Except you,” Mr. Brennan shot back.
Mr. Brennan went on, “This little girl who called you Daddy was the same girl you abused sexually a decade later?” He asked Mr. Flemmi, “What kind of abuse did you inflict on her?”
Mr. Flemmi seemed wounded. “I never inflicted any abuse on her,” he said. “It was consensual.”
He said her “lifestyle” had changed when she got older. Still, he said he regretted the sexual involvement with her, saying it had happened in “a moment of weakness.”
The defense will continue to cross-examine Mr. Flemmi on Tuesday.