In Ray Morales' life, 2003 was "the Year of the Rat," a lawyer said in federal court yesterday.
Harold Shapiro, who represents alleged killer Juan "Two-Face" Rivera-Velez, said that was the year Morales began cooperating with authorities, bringing down his own criminal empire and spinning lies to save himself.
After six weeks of testimony, attorneys yesterday started closing arguments in U.S. District Court in Camden, where Rivera-Velez, 35, is on trial on drug and murder conspiracy charges.
Prosecutors say Rivera-Velez, who is physically impaired and whose face is severely disfigured from a car accident, was hired by Morales as a hit man to protect his drug corner - and eventually multimillion-dollar drug organization - from 1992 to 2004.
It was among the largest cocaine organizations in the city's history, authorities said. In all, 24 people, including Morales, were indicted on charges related to the drug ring, and 23 have been convicted.
By cooperating, Morales escaped the death penalty. He could get life in prison, but he is hoping for a lesser sentence after joining what Shapiro called "Team Federal."
Morales testified against three others last year and admitted his part in six murders; he took the stand last month against Rivera-Velez. Morales said Rivera-Velez received a weekly salary to protect him and kill those who betrayed the organization. Rivera-Velez is accused of killing a rival drug dealer and attempting to kill a witness to cover up the murder.
Shapiro told the jury that the government's case made no sense. Morales, he said, was smart enough to build his empire and elude authorities. Why, he questioned, would Morales hire Rivera-Velez, with his "unforgettable" face?
In fact, Shapiro pointed out, Morales said he didn't use Rivera-Velez for another murder because he thought he would be too recognizable.
"There you have it," Shapiro said. "Straight from the reptile's mouth, Ray Morales."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Howard Wiener yesterday methodically went through the evidence presented during the last six weeks and told the jury that some discrepancy among witnesses was expected, especially as they recalled events more than a decade old. He said that numerous witnesses told similar stories, which made their testimony more believable.
Wiener acknowledged Morales' long criminal history and his willingness to kill to protect his drug organization.
"We are not asking you to like Ray Morales," Wiener told the jury, his voice rising as he concluded: "This is not a popularity contest. This is a federal murder trial."
Shapiro told the jury the Morales story would include chapters called "Aspiring Millionaire" and "King of Crack" before "The Year of the Rat." The lawyer poked fun at Morales, saying one chapter might be called "Thinkative Raymond," referring to Morales' testimony that he sometimes smoked 20 joints a day, which he said sharpened his mind and made him "thinkative."
Another chapter, "Raymond, the Caring Friend," would reflect Morales' devotion to Rivera-Velez after he was critically injured in a car accident, Shapiro said sarcastically. Morales testified he warmed food and vacuumed for Rivera-Velez as he recovered.
It's unbelievable, Shapiro said, that Morales then hired Rivera-Velez as a hit man after he lost the use of one arm and couldn't even run from a crime scene without help.
Morales testified that in 1996, he and Rivera-Velez lured rival drug dealer Miguel Batista from a bar to buy drugs and drove in his car to a darkened street. Rivera-Velez, in the backseat, shot Batista in the head, Morales said. Morales said he snatched the gun so Rivera-Velez could tuck his bad arm in his pants as the two ran.
They met up with an associate, Rafael Colon-Rodriguez, who disposed of their bloody clothes and the murder weapon, Morales testified. After Morales was arrested in 2003 in Philadelphia picking up a shipment of 30 kilos of cocaine worth $600,000, he told Rivera-Velez to kill Colon-Rodriguez to cover up the Batista murder, Morales had testified. Colon-Rodriguez was shot in the head but survived. He too, testified against Rivera-Velez.
Shapiro said Morales' testimony was not credible. Additionally, he said, other witnesses to the Batista murder identified other men as suspects. And Colon-Rodriguez did not tell investigators Rivera-Velez shot him until authorities threatened to charge him with perjury.
The prosecution had a different take.
Rivera-Velez, Wiener said, was good at his work, with one exception: "He left Colon alive."
Closing arguments are scheduled to resume today.