Paul W. Bergrin was once a freewheeling defense lawyer
NEWARK — With his pinstripe suit and cobalt tie, the defense lawyer, Paul W. Bergrin, looked the part as he addressed the jury for the first time. The prosecution’s witnesses are liars, he said, as defense lawyers do. “They will say and they will do anything,” he said.
But it took only seconds on Monday, the first day of a trial over the killing of a Newark witness, for this opening statement by a seasoned and skilled lawyer to distinguish itself. This time, it was not about someone else. “You are my last line of defense in my quest for justice,” Mr. Bergrin said, his voice quivering. “I did nothing wrong.”
Facing federal charges that he was involved in the murder of a witness who was to testify against a client facing drug charges, Mr. Bergrin was defying the usual advice about the wisdom of a lawyer who has himself for a client. As a result, his opening statement became a spectacle, filling the rows in the wood-paneled, carpeted courtroom of Judge William J. Martini of United States District Court.
Mr. Bergrin, once a federal prosecutor himself, did not disappoint. Known for years here as a savvy lawyer in cases involving drugs and street crime, he delivered theater. He looked the jurors in the eye. He tossed in mentions of the lofty protections of the Constitution. The federal prosecutors’ claims, he said, were “more fiction than you’ve probably ever heard in your entire life.”
He appeared to be at ease as he moved a step one way and then the other at the lectern, seemingly unconcerned about Judge Martini’s warning that, as a prisoner deemed dangerous, movement beyond a specified space in the courtroom might mean the introduction of a stun device on Mr. Bergrin’s ankle. He has been in a federal lockup since he was detained in 2009 on murder, drug, witness tampering and prostitution charges. The trial that began Monday centers on only the murder.
Mr. Bergrin, who used to sport a pencil-thin mustache, has never been a wallflower, so his dramatic foray was familiar territory. Still, as counterpoint to the restrained presentation of the federal prosecutors on Monday, it seemed to startle the jurors.
They had seemed only modestly attentive as an assistant United States attorney, John Gay, spoke with the restraint typical of federal prosecutors. He said, matter-of-factly, that Mr. Bergrin was so tied into a Newark drug organization that he was its “house counsel.” Mr. Bergrin, he said, shared the anxiety of his clients when he learned in 2003 that an informer named Kemo Deshawn McCray was preparing to testify against one of the drug dealers.
“In Paul Bergrin’s world, Kemo had to die,” Mr. Gay told the jurors.
The prosecutors say that Mr. Bergrin passed Mr. McCray’s name to people in the drug organization, advising that if Mr. McCray disappeared, the case would disappear. “No Kemo, no case,” the prosecutor quoted Mr. Bergrin as saying.
Mr. McCray was shot four times in the head on South Orange Avenue in Newark on March 2, 2004. Prosecutors contend that Mr. Bergrin helped orchestrate the killing.
Mr. Bergrin, 55, said the prosecutors were spinning a story, trying to trick jurors with lying witnesses and lazy investigative work. He was just a lawyer, he said, and the Constitution provided an important place for defense lawyers. He mentioned that he was once in the Army and that service members were, even now, fighting for the Constitution.
His Brooklyn accent on display, Mr. Bergrin, the son of a New York City police officer, said he had not suggested the killing of Mr. McCray. He claimed that it would have made no sense because Mr. McCray’s death would not have meant the end of the drug case.
Mr. Bergrin said his own role was as a professional, though he was often hired, he said, by a major drug gang in Newark. He was a lawyer, he said, his voice rising, “just like any doctor, lawyer, accountant, like anybody that owns a restaurant or a business.”
Killing, he said, was not part of the deal. “Nobody ever even hinted to me that one hair on Kemo’s head would be hurt,” he said.
Mr. Bergrin had obviously worried Judge Martini and the prosecutors with this decision to represent himself — a right of any defendant, but one exercised cautiously by lawyers who know the risks that come with a lack of objectivity.
But there was another school of thought that Mr. Bergrin, like many defense lawyers, was confident that no one could work a courtroom as he could. Having been in jail, he was out of practice. But he seemed to get his pacing back quickly, conferring away from the jury with other lawyers and the judge. When they walked to their places, a blur of pinstripes, Mr. Bergrin grinned, like a man happy to be back at work.