Two men hatched a cold-blooded scheme to make hundreds of thousands of dollars by taking out insurance policies on down-and-out victims without their knowledge, then hiring hitmen to kill them, a prosecutor said Wednesday in opening statements at a federal death penalty trial.

Richard James, 46, and Ronald Mallay, 61, both members of a tight-knit Guyanese community in Queens, treated their victims "like meat," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Capers. "They put prices on their heads."

A defense attorney countered that the causes of the deaths were in dispute, and that the accused were framed by Guyanese immigrants who were persuaded to testify with promises of U.S. residency and leniency in their own criminal cases.

The witnesses "are nothing more than bought and paid for," James' lawyer, Steve Zissou, said in Brooklyn court.

James — a former insurance agent known for hosting a cable television show featuring Guyanese music and dance — and Mallay, an ex-postal worker, have been accused in the poisoning and shooting deaths of four victims, two in the United States and two in Guyana, since the 1990s.

Prosecutors allege Mallay took out $400,000 on his brother-in-law before having him gunned down on a Queens street, one of two shooting deaths connected to the case. There also were two poisonings, including that of a homeless alcoholic, Basdeo Somaipersaud, who was injected with a fatal dose of a sedative while in drunken stupor in a park.

Capers told jurors that one of the defendants, while eyeing another potential victim, confided to an informant: "I have a natural bum, a complete bum. ... I have $250,000 on that man." The man survived the plot and will testify at the trial, the prosecutor said.

Zissou said the autopsy on Somaipersaud showed that he was in extremely poor health: "He had heart disease. He was ready to go." He also noted that the medical examiner listed the cause of death as "undetermined."

In the case of Somaipersaud and one other victim, the evidence "will show that they were not even murdered," he said.

MetLife discovered the scheme after noticing that 21 death claims had been filed from policies written by James within a few years. The rate "was approximately 318 percent higher than expected (and) ... a large number of deaths were violent or under unusual circumstances," court papers said.

MetLife fired James in July 2000 and notified authorities, who put him under surveillance.

Both men have pleaded innocent to federal murder conspiracy charges.