Throughout his two-decade legal career, Paul W. Bergrin cast himself as a flashy, hot-headed champion of some of society’s most vilified characters, from drug kingpins to soldiers accused of abuses in Iraq.
But that era seemed to come to an end on Monday when a federal judge sentenced Bergrin, 57, of Nutley to life in prison for a range of crimes, including murder, attempted murder, operating a prostitution ring and trafficking in cocaine.
Bergrin’s final words before the court — in a rambling, 40-minute speech that was by turns defiant and self-effacing, but hardly contrite — suggested he is ill at ease with his new role as a felon.
“I am humiliated each time I enter this court, chained up like an animal,” Bergrin said. “I’ve handled thousands of crimes, hundreds of cases … and for prosecutors to say that’s how I’ve lived my life, that’s totally false. There was never one allegation that anything was ever done wrong or improper. I’ve represented people with all my heart and soul.”
U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh told the court he took “no pleasure” in imposing the sentence, which included six concurrent life terms. He described Bergrin, who served as a federal and Essex County prosecutor before going into private practice, as a man “who somehow lost his way in life,” taking “the path of crime and self-destruction.”
Cavanaugh said Bergrin “abused his position of trust” as an attorney to facilitate criminal acts that were “among the most serious this court has seen … [and were] made even more reprehensible by his position as a lawyer.”
Bergrin faced mandatory life imprisonment without parole on three counts related to the 2004 murder of an FBI informant who had been poised to testify against one of his drug clients. Cavanaugh also granted the government’s request for life imprisonment on three other charges, including conspiracy to murder a felony witness and conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.
Bergrin, whose roster of clients included hip-hop stars, drug kingpins and soldiers accused of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, represented himself in an eight-week trial in Newark.
A jury deliberated for less than three days before finding him guilty in March of using his Newark law practice as a racketeering enterprise to engage in cocaine trafficking, prostitution, witness tampering, conspiracy to murder witnesses against his clients, attempted murder and aiding the murder of a federal witness.
The federal witness, Kemo Deshawn McCray, was gunned down on a Newark street corner before he could testify against one of Bergrin’s clients. Anthony Young, who confessed to killing McCray, served as a government witness at Bergrin’s trial and testified that Bergrin had advised a Newark drug kingpin, Hakeem Curry, that Curry’s cousin would be jailed for life for selling crack cocaine unless McCray were killed. “No Kemo, no case,” Bergrin was alleged to have told him.