Lawyer to celebs guilty in NJ racketeering case

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by Associated Press

Associated Press

Posted on March 18, 2013 at 10:34 PM

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A once-prominent New Jersey defense attorney whose clients included entertainers and rap stars was convicted Monday of operating a racketeering enterprise that included the murder of a witness and engaged in prostitution, drugs, and witness tampering.

A federal jury deliberated for a full day and parts of two others before coming back with guilty verdicts on all 23 counts against Paul Bergrin, a pugnacious former federal prosecutor who once represented an Army reservist charged in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, celebrities Queen Latifah and Lil' Kim, and the group Naughty By Nature.

Three of the counts, including two related to the murder of a federal witness in 2004, carry a mandatory life sentence.

Bergrin, who represented himself during the trial, didn't say anything after the verdict was read. Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney who has been advising Bergrin through this trial and a previous one that ended in a hung jury, said afterward that his client would file an appeal. Lustberg called the verdict surprising.

"We thought the jury would take much longer given the number and complexity of the charges," he said. "We're concerned that all the nuances of the evidence weren't considered."

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who worked briefly alongside Bergrin when both were assistant U.S. attorneys in New Jersey, said the verdict reflected a "stunning fall from grace."

"I take no joy from this verdict," Fishman said. "But his conduct over many years was a betrayal of his law enforcement colleagues and of the court."

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."

Another plot allegedly involved a drug case in Monmouth County in 2008. In that one, Bergrin was recorded allegedly telling an informant posing as a hit man to "make it look like a robbery."

Bergrin has been in jail since his arrest in 2009 along with several other defendants, including another attorney. All have pleaded guilty, and several testified against him over the course of two trials.

A key turning point in the nearly 4-year-old prosecution came last June when the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia took the rare step of removing the judge from Bergrin's first trial from the case, citing questions raised by prosecutors over his impartiality.

U.S. District Judge William J. Martini initially threw out the racketeering counts, but they were reinstated on appeal. He also severed two murder counts from the original indictment, and excluded some evidence from the first trial. That trial ended in a hung jury in the fall of 2011.

For the recent trial, U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh allowed the government to try Bergrin on all counts he faced, except several tax fraud charges that will be considered separately.

"This time the jury got to evaluate the full measure of all the conduct with which Bergrin was charged," Fishman said.

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