Former prosecutor and defense lawyer Paul Bergrin was sentenced Monday to life in prison for facilitating murder, running drugs and operating a criminal syndicate out of his Newark law practice.
U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh handed Bergrin six life terms, three of which were statutorily mandated.
Any mitigating factors were “significantly outweighed by the severity of defendant’s crimes” and “made more reprehensible” by his status as a prosecutor and defense attorney, Cavanaugh told the crowded courtroom.
“A message must be sent to those who might engage in this kind of behavior,” the judge added. “He went from successful attorney and family man to a life of self-destruction.”
Bergrin was found to have helped arrange the 2004 shooting death of FBI informant Kemo Deshawn McCray, a witness against Bergrin client William Baskerville in a drug case.
He also helped plan witness murders, which were not carried out, on behalf of clients Richard Pozo, facing federal drug charges in Texas, and Vincent Esteves, charged with drug offenses in New Jersey.
Bergrin also was convicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), for using his law firm to plan criminal activity.
During the seven-week trial, jurors heard testimony from dozens of witnesses — many of them convicted criminals who cut deals with prosecutors — and recordings of Bergrin talking to Oscar Cordova, an FBI informant masquerading as a high-ranking member of the Latin Kings street gang.
Bergrin, who represented himself at trial, chalked up his taped remarks to gamesmanship and disputed the authenticity of one of them.
Jurors returned guilty verdicts on all 23 counts after about 14 hours of deliberation over three days.
On Monday, attorneys argued for and against sentencing enhancements and departures, but three of the convictions carried mandatory life imprisonment terms: violent crime in aid of racketeering activity, witness murder and conspiracy to commit witness murder.
Cavanaugh handed down three more life terms — the maximum sentence on Bergrin’s convictions of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering and conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Bergrin, dressed in beige inmate garb, said he was “ashamed,” “embarrassed” and “humiliated,” but continued to maintain his innocence as he pleaded for any break the judge was empowered to give.
Bergrin said he was “probably one of the busiest attorneys in the state of New Jersey,” adding, “I’ve had thousands upon thousands of clients. I’ve had hundreds of trials,” and “never one allegation” of wrongdoing.
Bergrin went off on a tangent, accusing former U.S. Attorneys Samuel Alito and Michael Chertoff — along with current U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, then an assistant — with threatening him with kidnapping and murder for testifying on behalf of two criminally charged police officers in 1991, while Bergrin was still an assistant U.S. attorney.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gay, deputy chief of the Criminal Division, called Bergrin a “lawyer cloaked in legitimacy” who “woke up every morning on a mission to beat the system.”
Gay called Bergrin’s allegations about Fishman, Alito and Chertoff “absolutely false” and “scurrilous.”
Fishman, outside the courtroom, said the sentence “reflects the extreme seriousness of his crime and the extent to which he betrayed the justice system.”
Bergrin’s court-appointed assisting counsel, Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons in Newark, who handled briefs and motion arguments, promised an immediate appeal. Cavanaugh denied motions for acquittal, a new trial and other relief in July.
Lustberg told reporters that Bergrin “was not … given the opportunity to fully present his case” because Cavanaugh refused a presentence evidentiary hearing at which Bergrin intended to present evidence he purposely withheld at trial.
Bergrin, 57, was a U.S. Army judge advocate general, an assistant Essex County prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney in Newark. In private practice he defended notable clients, including a soldier court-martialed in connection with the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal.
Bergrin was originally charged in a May 2009 federal indictment. Aside from the witness tampering, he was accused of browbeating the 9-year-old daughter of a client, Noberto Velez, into falsely testifying for him in his trial on charges of stabbing his estranged wife.
Other charges included helping client Jason Itzler run a call-girl ring, New York Confidential, by creating a false paralegal position at his firm in order to facilitate interstate travel, and operating illegitimate businesses, including Isabella’s Restaurant in Newark, where federal authorities seized dozens of kilograms of cocaine in 2009.
Bergrin’s first trial, on only the McCray murder counts, ended in late 2011 with a hung jury.
Prosecutors were successful in having U.S. District Judge William Martini removed from the case because of the appearance of anti-prosecution bias. Martini had dismissed three RICO counts — though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reinstated them — and, at Bergrin’s behest, severed counts related to the McCray murder and ordered them tried first, reasoning that the jury might convict Bergrin based on other, later evidence. Martini also excluded chunks of prosecution evidence and, after the mistrial, ordered a second severance splitting off the RICO counts from the Esteves and drug-trafficking counts, again citing prejudice concerns.
Cavanaugh was assigned in August 2012 and allowed much of the prosecution evidence that Martini had excluded, and ordered trial on all the counts together, except charges of filing false tax returns, which prosecutors previously agreed to try separately.