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By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - For six weeks, James "Whitey" Bulger's trial has played out like a movie. The longtime Boston mob boss has angrily cursed in open court, his own lawyer has described him as a mobster, and a potential witness turned up dead on the side of a road.
As prosecutors prepare to wrap up their case in the next few days and hand it over to the defense, the biggest question on observers' minds is whether the 83-year-old defendant will raise the dramatic ante by taking the witness stand.
Bulger, whose story inspired the 2006 Academy Award-winning film "The Departed," emerged as one of Boston's most feared criminals in the 1970s and 80s. He ran a gang that prosecutors allege sold drugs, extorted bookies and murdered competitors, suspected informants and innocent bystanders.
"There's a significant likelihood of a fairly out-of-the-box experience, and that is Whitey using the opportunity to testify as his final moment in the sun and a chance for score-settling ... embarrassing old foes and old rivals," said former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein, a partner in the Boston law firm McDermott Will & Emery.
Bulger, who has lost the shock of light-colored hair that earned him the nickname "Whitey" in his youth, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. But for decades, he has been notorious for his reign as head of South Boston's Winter Hill gang.
Those years of murder and mayhem have been on display during the trial, as witnesses described how the gang smuggled drugs and firearms, extorted a variety of people from bookies to business owners, and murdered rivals, suspected informants and innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.
On Thursday, police said one of Bulger's extortion victims, who had hoped to testify at the trial, had turned up dead. The body showed no signs of trauma but authorities are conducting an autopsy and doing toxicology tests.
Defense attorneys often advise their clients not to take the stand. The risk of alienating the jury or causing jurors to doubt the honesty of the accused is said to outweigh any benefit of the defendant telling his side of the story.
But given Bulger's reputation and after six weeks of testimony from dozens of witnesses ranging from former mob associates to relatives of murder victims, he may feel he has nothing to lose.
Bulger may also want a chance to publicly dispute the accusation that appears to bother him most: that he acted as an FBI informant.
In his opening statements, lead defense attorney J.W. Carney described Bulger as an extortionist, drug dealer and loan shark who ran an "unbelievably lucrative criminal enterprise."
What the defense has not acknowledged, and has spent much of its time trying to discredit, is that Bulger cooperated with the FBI, specifically corrupt agent John Connolly. The former agent is now serving a 40-year prison sentence on murder and racketeering convictions.
Bulger contends he paid Connolly for information but provided none of his own. The mob boss regards talking to the authorities, or being "a rat," as the worst offense a gang member could commit. Prosecutors contend Bulger murdered several people he believed were talking to the FBI.
One of Bulger's notable outbursts in the trial came when Connolly's former FBI boss, John Morris, was on the stand describing a cozy relationship between Bulger and the bureau.
"You're a fucking liar," Bulger shouted.
Trial watchers point to outbursts like that as signs that Bulger believes he has little chance of beating charges that carry the possibility of life in prison.
"I will be very surprised if 'Whitey' Bulger testifies," said Thomas Peisch, a partner with Boston law firm Conn Kavanaugh and a former state prosecutor. "However, it does not appear that he has anything to lose and his ego may carry the day."
Bulger fled Boston and eluded capture for 16 years after Connolly tipped him off in 1994 that arrest was imminent. He appeared on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list, but many in Boston thought he would never be found. Agents found him in June, 2011, living in a seaside apartment in Santa Monica, California.
Now that he is back in the spotlight, Bulger may seek a last chance to beef up the myth of a straight-shooting mobster, who lived by a code of rough justice and silence.
"If he does end up taking the stand, it's because he knows it's over and there might be some rough going, but he wants that wrestling match, he wants to shout back at the prosecutors," said Richard Lehr, author of a book on Bulger titled "Black Mass" and a professor of journalism at Boston University.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Paul Thomasch and David Gregorio)