Paul Bergrin, who once earned his living sending criminals to jail, will likely be following in their path.
On Monday, after a seven-week trial, a federal court jury in Newark convicted the former prosecutor on 23 counts, most related to running his criminal defense practice in the city as a racketeering and illegal drug enterprise and serving as "house counsel" to a drug kingpin.
The counts included witness murder and murder conspiracy, conspiracy to distribute cocaine, maintaining drug-involved premises, travel in aid of drug-trafficking business, conspiracy to travel in aid of drug trafficking and bribery, travel in aid of prostitution business and evading currency transaction reporting requirements.
Among the most serious charges, Bergrin was found guilty of:
• Helping arrange the 2004 murder of FBI informant Kemo Deshawn McCray, a witness against Bergrin client William Baskerville in a drug case.
• Helping plan two witness murders that were not carried out: one on behalf of client Richard Pozo, facing federal drug charges in Texas, and the other on behalf of Vincent Esteves, facing drug charges in Monmouth County.
• 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.
• Helping client Jason Itzler run call-girl ring New York Confidential by creating a false paralegal position for Itzler at his firm in order to facilitate travel between New York and New Jersey.
• Operating illegitimate businesses, including Isabella’s Restaurant on Sumner Avenue in Newark, where federal authorities seized dozens of kilograms of cocaine in 2009.
After the verdict was read, U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh dismissed the jurors, who deliberated for 14 hours over three days, noting, "It was not an easy case."
This was the second jury to hear the evidence against Bergrin. His first trial ended in late 2011 with a hung jury.
Since the second trial began on Jan. 22, jurors heard testimony from dozens of government witnesses — many convicted criminals who’d cut deals with prosecutors — and recordings of Bergrin talking to one Oscar Cordova, who he believed to be a high-ranking member of the Latin Kings street gang but who was really an FBI informant.
Prosecutors charged that Bergrin used his status as an attorney to serve as a conduit of information between jailed clients and their criminal associates on the outside, and corrupted his duty to advocate for clients by engaging in criminal conduct along with them.
Bergrin, who was pro se, denied the charges, called numerous witnesses of his own, lambasted government witnesses as self-interested criminals and maintained that he merely represented his clients zealously.
He attempted to explain away his taped remarks — including statements that a witness hit must be made to look like a home-invasion robbery — by saying that he knew all along that Cordova was an informant, and was merely playing along with his ruse.
Jurors heard a day’s worth of closing arguments on March 13 and received three hours of instructions from Cavanaugh the next day before getting the case midafternoon.
They reached their verdict shortly before 1 p.m. on Monday.
Cavanaugh gave Bergrin and his "standby" counsel, Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, 45 days to file post-trial motions. Lustberg had been court-appointed to handle motions and appeals.
Lustberg told reporters outside the courtroom that Bergrin was "devastated." "It’s the first time I’ve known him to be speechless."
Lustberg added that he and Bergrin are "very concerned" that jurors might not have considered all the evidence in reaching a verdict so quickly on such a complex set of counts.
They will move for acquittal and other relief, appeal various rulings by Cavanaugh and "will avail ourselves of every legal remedy until this injustice is corrected," Lustberg said.
"We have always said that it’s impossible to get a fair trial when all these things are taken together," Lustberg said, adding, "we indulge the fiction" that jurors can consider each count independently of the others.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who was in the courtroom Monday, told reporters afterward that Bergrin’s conduct was "a betrayal" of the court and of his former law-enforcement colleagues — of which Fishman, in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, was one.
Bergrin, 57, an assistant U.S. attorney from 1985 until 1990 and an assistant Essex County prosecutor before that, is a veteran of the U.S. Army, where he conducted more than 100 trials as a judge advocate general.
As a defense lawyer, he was well known for defending a soldier court-martialed in connection with the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal.
Fishman said he has "enormous respect" for the defense bar, but "what Bergrin did is cross a line that should never be crossed" by "tampering" with the criminal justice system.
Bergrin’s sentencing is scheduled for July 18. The murder conspiracy count carries a mandatory life sentence, and some counts carry possible fines of up to $500,000.
Hung Jury Led to Retrial, New Judge
Bergrin originally was charged in a May 2009 federal indictment with masterminding a criminal syndicate through his firm in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The indictment was amended twice over the following two years.
In April 2010, U.S. District Judge William Martini dismissed three RICO counts, ruling that prosecutors failed to allege a coordinated criminal effort. But a year later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reinstated the charges.
In September 2011, Martini, 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 from the November 2011 trial, which ended in a mistrial after the jury deliberated for six days without reaching a verdict.
While the government appealed the evidentiary rulings, Martini ordered a second severance splitting off the RICO counts from the Esteves and drug-trafficking counts, again citing prejudice concerns.
That proved to be the last straw for prosecutors, who’d butted heads with Martini often during the case. They asked an appeals court to remove Martini, claiming he belittled the RICO counts and insinuated that prosecutors were bent on depriving Bergrin of a fair trial.
Last June, the Third Circuit ordered Martini removed, finding the judge’s impartiality in question.
Cavanaugh was assigned in August, 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.
On Monday, Fishman said jurors, in this trial as opposed to the November 2011 trial, got to evaluate all the evidence. "We always thought that was the appropriate way to try this case," he said.