Until now, the federal murder trial of Alan QuiÃ±ones and Diego Rodriguez, two Bronx men accused of heroin trafficking and killing a police informant, had attracted attention mostly because of the judge's unusual constitutional challenge to the death penalty.
Then Hector Vega took the stand.
In testimony last week, Mr. Vega, a drug gang leader who is a key government witness, described watching the defendants beat the victim, Edwin Santiago, as he lay handcuffed on the floor of a Bronx apartment and spit in his face to show what they thought of informants. The next day, June 28, 1999, Mr. Santiago's body was found mutilated and burned beyond recognition. It was identified through DNA testing.
But Mr. Vega went much further. He gave the jury a detailed lesson in Bronx drug operations, reciting with stony dispassion the beatings, slashings and shootings he committed to enforce what he called "the drug law," and to uphold principles he declares in a tattoo on his upper right arm that means "Money. Power. Respect."
"If people deserved it, I beat them up," Mr. Vega said.
The defendants, on trial in the Southern District of New York, are facing federal charges of murder, narcotics distribution and racketeering. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
The judge, Jed S. Rakoff, raised the case to prominence in July 2002 when he ruled that the federal death penalty law was unconstitutional because it posed an "undue risk of executing innocent people." Judge Rakoff issued his ruling after the prosecution notified him that it would seek the death penalty.
An appeals court overturned the ruling, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Mr. Vega, also accused of Mr. Santiago's murder, pleaded guilty in August 2001 and agreed to be a cooperating witness. A fourth murder defendant, Janet Soto, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2002 to 20 years in jail.
In a matter-of-fact way, Mr. Vega, 31, told the jury that he headed a compact hierarchy of heroin vendors who did business from his "spot," his sales area, between Daly and Honeywell Avenues in the Bronx. He said he had learned the trade from a stepfather, a building superintendent who he said had a second job as a narcotics entrepreneur.
"He used to sell drugs since I've know him, since I was a baby," Mr. Vega testified. "I always knew about the drug business. I was raised around it."
He received heroin on consignment from wholesalers and turned it over in $100 packages to people he called his "managers," who in turn found runners to sell it on the street.
His job, he said, was to "make sure everybody is working, and I will make sure everything is running correctly." Saying he took 35 percent of all sales in his organization, he estimated that he made a total of at least $500,000 in the five years before his July 2000 arrest.
His rules of operation were strict. He did not sell between 1 and 3 p.m., because of "school hours." He did not allow anyone to sell at his spot without his approval, or steal drugs from him, or pass him a counterfeit bill, or taint the quality of drugs sold under his name. If that happened, he said, "I'd be looking like a fool. The drug spot will go down."
Under questioning by the prosecutor, David Rody, Mr. Vega told of disciplining one of his workers, named Manny, who stole one package of heroin. Spotting Manny on the street, Mr. Vega slashed his face with a box cutter. To his frustration, the wound did not immediately bleed.
"I didn't see nothing cut, I didn't see anything I did, so I did it a second time," he said, until he saw blood.
Angered by a fake bill he received from a crack addict, "I punched him in the face, I kicked him, I threw him on the floor and kicked him again." He punished one stranger who cheated him by hitting the man in the back of the head with a three-foot tree branch.
Mr. Vega bristled when Lee Ginsberg, Mr. QuiÃ±ones's defense lawyer, asked him if he had "beaten up" a woman whose boyfriend had stolen four dogs from a pet shop he briefly owned.
"I just smacked her around," he insisted. He slapped her face, tied her up, sat on her and forced a garden hose into her mouth until she confessed her boyfriend's role, he said.
Among narcotics dealers, Mr. Vega said, the harshest penalties were for police informants. "In the drug world, in the drug law, we say that snitches get stitches," he said. "In jail you cut their face. In the street, you beat them. You kill them."
Prosecutors hope that Mr. Vega's credibility as a witness will be enhanced by his candid confession of his own crimes. Mr. Ginsberg, the defense lawyer, sought in his cross-examination to turn that strategy back on the prosecution by trying to show that Mr. Vega's cold-bloodedness made him untrustworthy.
Mr. Vega said that Mr. QuiÃ±ones and Mr. Rodriguez were heroin wholesalers and that he began buying drugs from them a few months before Mr. Santiago's death.
He testified that after he learned that Mr. QuiÃ±ones suspected Mr. Santiago of working undercover for the police, he helped him and Mr. Rodriguez lure Mr. Santiago to the apartment of a girlfriend.
In court Friday, Mr. Vega came down from the witness stand and crouched before the jury box, re-enacting how he said Mr. QuiÃ±ones bent over Mr. Santiago, handcuffed on the floor, and shouted at him.
"I beat one body before, and I'll beat your body, too," Mr. Vega said, in his imitation of Mr. QuiÃ±ones. Documents filed in court by prosecutors in support of their petition for the death sentence accuse Mr. QuiÃ±ones of participating in two earlier killings, in 1985 and 1988.
Mr. Vega said Mr. Santiago was still alive when he left the apartment. A few hours later, he said, he saw Mr. Rodriguez and Ms. Soto on the street carrying a tank of gasoline and "a metal object."
Closing arguments in the trial, which began June 22, are expected Wednesday. Mr. Vega, who has not been sentenced, faces a minimum of 15 years in jail. He said that he hoped to avoid a death penalty by cooperating, but that they had given him no guarantees about his sentence.