Retrial began Tuesday in federal court in Newark in the case of Paul Bergrin, a former prosecutor accused of running a crime ring through his law office that carried out witness murder, drug trafficking and other crimes.
U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh heard a total of four hours of opening arguments by the prosecution and by Bergrin, who is conducting his own defense, just as he did in the 2011 proceeding that ended in a mistrial.
Bergrin is assisted by Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons in Newark, as court-appointed supporting counsel. Lustberg served the same role in the first trial and has handled appeals.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gay, deputy chief of the Criminal Division, told the jury that Bergrin was “not the ordinary criminal defense attorney.”
“He made a decision he was not simply going to represent people,” said Gay. “He decided he was going to commit crimes along with them. … He decided to be what can best be described as a full-service provider for his clients.”
Gay alleged that Bergrin, through the Bergrin Law Office in Newark “operated at the top of the food chain” in several drug trafficking operations, often by connecting distributors with wholesale drug suppliers, and that he acted as “house counsel” for a drug ring run by Hakeem Curry.
Bergrin is accuse of complicity in the murder of Kemo Deshawn McCray, an informant who was gunned down in broad daylight on a Newark street in 2004. Bergrin represented Curry associate William Baskerville, who was incarcerated while facing federal drug charges. Gay said Bergrin, as a lawyer entitled to private meetings with Baskerville, “provided a secret conduit of information” with Baskerville’s associates that “was so invaluable to this plot.”
Bergrin is accused of trying to arrange two other witness murders — one on behalf of client Richard Pozo, who faced federal drug charges in Texas, and the other on behalf of Vincent Esteves, who faced drug counts in Monmouth County. Bergrin allegedly enlisted a Chicago-based Latin Kings hitman who turned out to be a government informant.
Gay accused Bergrin of browbeating the 9-year-old daughter of a client — Noberto Velez, accused of repeatedly stabbing his estranged wife — into falsely testifying in Velez’s favor, ultimately leading to his acquittal.
Bergrin also allegedly helped client Jason Itzler run New York Confidential, a prostitution operation. Bergrin created a fictitious paralegal position for Itzler, a parolee, to get travel restrictions lifted so Itzler could go to New York and conduct his business, Gay said.
Gay also laid out the charges against Bergrin under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). He alleged roles played by Bergrin associates and by corporations, including Isabella’s Restaurant on Summer Avenue in Newark, where the Drug Enforcement Agency seized dozens of kilograms of cocaine in 2009.
Bergrin also is charged under the Violent Crime in Aid of Racketeering statute (VICAR).
Gay urged jurors to give witnesses, many of whom are convicted criminals, fair consideration, and to view Bergrin not as a zealous representative of his clients, but as a co-conspirator.
“Paul Bergrin did not do the things he did in this case because of some duty to his profession,” he said.
Gay spoke for about two hours. Bergrin then took over and went on for about two hours himself, before and after an hour-long lunch recess.
Bergrin told jurors the government’s case “will make no sense to you, with your God-given common sense.”
“I’m a human being. I bleed red blood. I make mistakes. … It’s human nature to sometimes say things you don’t mean,” Bergrin said, referring to voice recordings where he allegedly pushed the idea of witness murder.
Bergrin said he knew full well the supposed hitman he communicated with in connection with Baskerville was an informant, chalking up his statements to “nothing but role playing and gamesmanship,” and “lying” and “bluffing.”
Bergrin cited his Sixth Amendment duty, as an attorney, to “pour my heart and soul into those cases” and defend clients “like they’re our own children, our brothers and sisters.
“That’s all I ever did … but I didn’t violate the law,” Bergrin said.
Bergrin called the prosecution’s witnesses self-serving, disingenuous criminals who often didn’t recollect any illicit dealings with Bergrin until faced with the specter of a lengthy prison sentence in their own criminal cases.
“Paul Bergrin was the get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said. “Paul Bergrin was their way to get the benefits of cooperation.”
As Bergrin descended into great detail, painstakingly describing specific evidence jurors had yet to hear, he drew no fewer than four reprimands from Cavanaugh in the final 40 minutes of his statement.
“Mr. Bergrin, … you’re going too far in opening statement,” Cavanaugh said. “Move on — this is not a summation,” Cavanaugh said shortly after, and then, a few minutes later: “I’ve warned you. I’ve given you wide latitude.”
Bergrin highlighted his 20 years of military service in the U.S. Army, including multiple deployments in Iraq and Kuwait, and time spent in the branch’s Judge Advocate General Corps.
Bergrin is being tried on 26 of the 33 counts against him — everything but tax evasion charges, which prosecutors have agreed to try separately.
U.S. District Judge William Martini, who originally was assigned to the case, ordered two severances that would have separated out the charges over the McCray murder and the RICO counts.
Trial on the McCray counts proceeded after Martini excluded chunks of evidence prosecutors sought to admit, and ended in a hung jury.
On the government’s motion, an appeals panel later removed Martini for apparent anti-prosecution bias. Cavanaugh was assigned in August, and allowed much of the prosecution evidence Martini had denied.