A once-prominent defense attorney who made a reputation representing people accused of murder and drug trafficking urged jurors to reject murder charges against him because the government's case was based on lies by the type of people he used to call clients.
"When people are confronted with spending extraordinary amounts of time in jail, they will say anything and they will do anything to gain their release," Paul Bergrin told a jury during a 90-minute opening statement in U.S. District Court. "The only way for them to do that is to cooperate with the government."
Bergrin is representing himself in the trial, which stems from his 2009 arrest in what the government claims was a racketeering enterprise involving drugs, prostitution, money laundering and witness tampering.
Those charges were severed by a federal judge, and this trial will focus solely on the murder of Deshawn "Kemo" McCray, a government informant who was scheduled to testify against one of Bergrin's clients, William Baskerville.
Bergrin faces one count each of murder and murder conspiracy for providing McCray's name to Baskerville's associates, one of whom later fatally shot McCray on a Newark street in March 2004. According to prosecutors, Bergrin told the men, "No Kemo, no case."
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gay portrayed Bergrin as a "house counsel" for a Newark-based drug operation who gradually became involved in the drug trade himself and saw his own world about to split apart if McCray was to testify.
"That provides the motive for this crime," Gay told jurors. "He had a personal motive at this point; his neck was personally on the line."
Bergrin, who once represented Queen Latifah, Lil' Kim and other rappers, developed a reputation as a hard-nosed defense attorney over the last decade in northern New Jersey; before that, he worked as a prosecutor for a dozen years in Essex County and in the U.S. attorney's office in Newark.
He gained wider notoriety in 2005 when he represented Sgt. Javal Davis, a New Jersey Army reservist charged in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse case. Davis ultimately pleaded guilty to reduced charges and spent less than four months behind bars. Suspicions that Bergrin may have become too close to the criminal element he represented were bolstered when, two weeks before his 2009 arrest in New Jersey, he pleaded guilty in New York to misdemeanor conspiracy to promote prostitution in exchange for probation in a case involving a high-priced Manhattan escort agency run by one of his clients.
During Monday's opening, Bergrin was by turns combative and pleading with the jury, at one point telling the panel, "There is no tomorrow for me. You are the last line of defense for me in my quest for justice."
He admitted mentioning McCray's name to Baskerville's family and others but said Baskerville had deduced McCray's identity from the government's complaint filing anyway. He emphatically denied attending a meeting where prosecutors said the "no Kemo, no case" comment was made and denied suggesting any harm come to McCray.
"No one even hinted to me that one hair on Kemo's head would be harmed," he said.
During afternoon testimony, an FBI agent described to jurors how McCray was recruited as an informant. The session ended prematurely as prosecutors were attempting to play surveillance tapes made of McCray's drug buys and some jurors' headphones malfunctioned.
The trial is expected to last several weeks. A key witness for the prosecution is expected to be Anthony Young, an associate of Baskerville's who prosecutors say shot McCray; however, Bergrin said Young changed his story numerous times and initially identified a friend as the triggerman.
In a precaution generally reserved for organized crime or gang cases, jurors' names aren't being released to the news media or to defense attorneys.