A defense lawyer at the murder and conspiracy trial of drug kingpin Kaboni Savage hammered away Thursday at a key prosecution witness, trying to get the man to concede that others might have been behind the October 2004 firebombing that killed his mother, son, and four relatives. The witness, Eugene “Twin” Coleman, told a federal jury in Philadelphia this week that his relatives were killed less than a day after he overheard Savage, his onetime friend, describe him and his family as rats, and vow to “kill all the [expletive] rats.”

As he completed a third day of occasionally contentious cross-examination Thursday, lawyer Christian Hoey did not ask Coleman about those specific remarks. But he pointed to FBI reports before the attack in which Coleman said others in the Federal Detention Center had threatened him and his family. Hoey said Coleman told agents in August 2004 he was worried that Muslim inmates who knew he had become a government witness planned “a sit-down” about him. Hoey also cited an FBI report before the bombing in which Coleman said Dawud Bey, another imprisoned drug dealer with whom he had had past disputes, “told him they were going to kill his family.” Coleman retorted that Bey was merely conveying the threat from Savage. He said Savage was housed on another floor in the prison but passed instructions through the prison plumbing. “Bey was talking to Kaboni through the [toilet] bowl,” Coleman testified. Savage and three others, including his sister Kidada, face federal conspiracy and murder charges in connection with 12 deaths, including the North Philadelphia firebombing that killed Coleman’s family.

Authorities have called that attack on North Sixth Street the most horrific example of witness retaliation in recent city history. Robert “B.J.” Merritt, one of the men accused of carrying out the bombing, is on trial with Savage and, like him, could face the death penalty if convicted. The other alleged bomber, Lamont Lewis, is expected to testify for the government next month. Savage has been jailed since 2003 and is serving a 30-year term for drug trafficking. His court-appointed lawyers contend he did not have the power or means to engineer the firebombing. They say the government case is built on the word of lying drug dealers and others trying to save themselves. Coleman, a close friend and high-ranking member in Savage’s drug network, spent 41 months in prison, and was relocated and given a new identity under the federal witness security program. He was kicked out in November 2010, he said, for improperly revealing to someone that he was in the program.

Hoey and Coleman sparred for nearly three days, with the lawyer repeatedly challenging Coleman’s credibility and trying to portray him less as a victim of murderous retribution than as a heartless drug dealer who repeatedly lied to authorities and jurors – and may still be doing so. Later Thursday morning, one of Merritt’s lawyers, Paul George, pointed out that Coleman sat through hundreds of hours of interviews and trial and grand jury testimony over a decade before he ever mentioned Merritt to authorities as a member of the drug ring. “I just answered the questions they asked me,” Coleman said, echoing a response he has given dozens of times this week. The trial, before U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick, began in early February and is expected to last through April.