Accused mobster James "Whitey" Bulger’s lawyer opened his defense on Wednesday by launching a frontal attack against federal law enforcement authorities, accusing them of letting vicious cronies off lightly, even for murder, to build their case against him.

J.W. Carney Jr. of Boston’s Carney & Bassil devoted nearly one hour to attacking the government that indicted his client on 32 counts, including two of racketeering, two of conspiracy, 23 of money laundering and five firearms-related charges. The racketeering charges are based on 33 underlying acts, including participation in 19 murders, extortion and drug distribution.

Carney compared the authorities to cooks preparing food. "By the time it gets to your table there’s a beautiful presentation," he told jurors, but he and co-counsel Hank Brennan would "show you what happens in the prosecutors’ kitchen."

And he attacked the heart of the prosecution’s theory of the case — that Bulger turned government informer, trading information harmful to his rivals in Boston’s underworld for a free hand to commit mayhem himself.

In fact, he argued, Bulger avoided prosecution for years by paying off corrupt law enforcement officials, not by serving as an informant.

"This is how James Bulger was able to do illegal gambling, make illegal loans, be involved in drug trafficking and extortion and never, ever be charged — and on top of that make millions upon millions upon millions of dollars doing so," he said.

He mentioned former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent John Connolly Jr., convicted in 2002 of racketeering, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI for actions involving Bulger and his associates. Connolly was sentenced to a decade in prison and in in 2011 started serving a sentence on a 2008 second-degree murder conviction.

Bulger and his longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig were captured in June 2011, at their Santa Monica, Calif., apartment after nearly 16 years as fugitives. Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed Greig’s eight-year sentence for harboring a fugitive.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Kelly, chief of the public corruption and special prosecutions unit, laid out the government’s case. He focused on Bulger’s alleged victims and their last moments. "He was no ordinary leader — he did the dirty work himself, Kelly said. "He was a hands-on killer."

Carney also took the offensive about three key witnesses: John Martorano, Stephen Flemmi and Kevin Weeks.

In a 1999 plea bargain, Martorano admitted to 20 murders. In exchange for his cooperation, Carney said, he demanded no more than a dozen years in prison and to be spared the death penalty for killings committed in Florida and Oklahoma. He also stipulated that his girlfriend not be prosecuted and refused to testify against certain people, including his brother, Carney added.

"The federal government was so desperate to have John Martorano to testify in a manner they wanted against John Connolly and James Bulger that they basically put their hands up in the air and said, ‘Take what you want,’ " Carney said.

Weeks, the second of the trio to enter a plea in 1999, admitted to participating in five murders. He spent just five years in prison, Carney said.

Flemmi was "next into the Department of Justice kitchen to be prepared for being served here at trial," Carney said. Although he was third in the door, the government was willing to "give him his very life" by persuading Florida and Oklahoma not to seek the death penalty for murders he committed in those states, Carney said. Flemmi pleaded guilty to 10 murders in 2004.

As for the government, Kelly ended by showing snapshots of the 19 victims on a video screen.

"And that, ladies and gentleman, is what this case is about," Kelly said.

Sheri Qualters can be contacted at squalters@alm.com.