NEWARK, N.J. — A defense attorney who once had a roster of celebrity clients and boasted of having tried hundreds of cases in federal court was sentenced there on Monday to life in prison without parole after his conviction on nearly two dozen counts including murder conspiracy and racketeering.
Paul Bergrin, in custody since his 2009 arrest, wore khaki prison scrubs and showed little reaction as a judge read what amounted to several life sentences Monday afternoon in a federal courtroom in Newark.
The 57-year-old former federal prosecutor once represented an Army reservist charged in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq and celebrities such as Queen Latifah, the rapper Lil’ Kim and the group Naughty By Nature. He also represented reputed gang members and alleged drug kingpins from his offices in Newark.
Bergrin, formerly of Nutley, and several associates were arrested and charged in May 2009 with running his law business as a criminal enterprise. The U.S. attorney’s office charged Bergrin with more than 30 counts including racketeering, setting up the murder of a witness, money laundering and drug offenses. His first trial, in which Bergrin represented himself, ended in a hung jury two years ago.
A second trial resulted in his conviction in March on 23 counts related to operating what prosecutors said was a racketeering enterprise that engaged in drug trafficking, prostitution, bribery, plotting to murder witnesses and money laundering.
One of the alleged murder plots was hatched in 2004, when Bergrin was representing a client in a drug case, prosecutors said. A potential witness, Kemo Deshawn McCray, was gunned down on a Newark street. Bergrin was alleged to have told his client’s confederates, “No Kemo, no case.”
Bergrin, speaking before his sentencing on Monday, was defiant. He listed a litany of injustices he felt had been committed against him, blaming former colleagues and crooked witnesses he said had been forced to lie about him in exchange for “get out of jail free” cards.
“I hold my head high. I’m ashamed. I’m embarrassed. I’m humiliated. But I’m not broken,” Bergrin told U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh. “I’ll go to my grave saying I had nothing to do with the death of Deshawn McCray.”
Supporters who attended the sentencing said Bergrin had been unfairly portrayed in the media, adding he was a committed lawyer who went to bat for his clients and gave back to the Newark community.
Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney who advised Bergrin through both trials, said they planned to appeal both the jury verdict and the sentence.
Lustberg said after the sentencing: “The offense was sentenced. The offender was not.”
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who worked briefly alongside Bergrin when both were assistant U.S. attorneys in New Jersey, said the verdict reflected the “extreme seriousness of the crime.”
During sentencing, Cavanaugh said giving Bergrin anything less than life imprisonment would “undermine the entire criminal justice system of which the defendant was a part, and which he manipulated and abused.”
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