NJ lawyer's murder case ends in mistrial

AP News
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Posted: Nov 23, 2011 1:24 PM
NJ lawyer's murder case ends in mistrial

The murder case against a once-prominent defense lawyer whose clients included entertainers as well as gang members ended in mistrial Wednesday after jurors failed for the sixth day to reach a verdict.

Paul Bergrin had faced one count each of murder and murder conspiracy for allegedly ordering the killing of an informant in 2004 to prevent him from testifying against one of Bergrin's clients.

In a note to U.S. District Judge William J. Martini on Wednesday morning, the jury foreperson said that after numerous votes, "At this point we see no avenue to reaching a unanimous decision."

The mistrial likely won't end Bergrin's legal odyssey, as he still faces racketeering, drug and money laundering charges stemming from a 2009 indictment that named him and several associates, all of whom have since pleaded guilty. But it represented a rebuke to the government's assertion that Bergrin helped to set up informant Deshawn "Kemo" McCray's murder to mask his own involvement in the illegal drug trade.

It also largely validated Bergrin's decision to represent himself at the trial, though he was assisted by Lawrence Lustberg, who had represented him earlier in the case.

Bergrin, who has been in jail since his 2009 arrest, was led away from the courtroom by marshals Wednesday without commenting. A cousin, Ronald Bergrin, called the mistrial "very disappointing."

"The evidence proved Paul was not guilty," he said. "At the next trial he will be found not guilty."

It's unclear what the next trial will encompass. The U.S. attorney's office can retry Bergrin on the murder counts or it can choose not to and opt to try him on the racketeering and associated counts. That could happen as soon as January, though Martini is expected to rule on a defense motion for acquittal on the murder counts within two weeks, which could alter the timetable.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman didn't offer a clue, saying in a statement, "While it is disappointing the jury was unable to reach a verdict, we are fully prepared for the next trial."

Using an aggressive and at times accusatory defense style, Bergrin conducted sharp cross-examinations of the prosecution's witnesses, several of whom were convicted drug dealers he once represented. He flatly accused the government of getting witnesses to change their stories in exchange for lighter sentences.

In particular, Bergrin insinuated that confessed shooter Anthony Young changed his story multiple times in an attempt to fit the prosecution's theory of the case. Young testified that Bergrin uttered the phrase, "No Kemo, no case" at a meeting a few months before McCray's death; Bergrin denied making the statement or attending the alleged meeting.

In a nearly five-hour summation last week, he begged jurors: "There is no tomorrow for me. You are my last line of defense."

Out of the presence of the jury, Martini on several occasions during the trial expressed misgivings about the government's efforts to prove Bergrin's involvement in the drug trade, saying their evidence consisted of witnesses' uncorroborated statements. But the judge also ruled that some evidence prosecutors sought to use as corroboration was not admissible.

Bergrin began his career as a prosecutor, first in Essex County and later at the U.S. attorney's office _ the office that tried him in this case. He gained a reputation as a no-holds-barred advocate for defendants other attorneys might shy away from. But privately, many lawyers suspected he may have become too close to the criminal element he represented.

Two weeks before his arrest in New Jersey, Bergrin 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. He was sentenced to three years' probation.

Bergrin once represented rappers and other celebrities such as Queen Latifah and Lil' Kim. He also represented Sgt. Javal Davis, a New Jersey Army reservist who pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the Abu Ghraib case and spent less than four months behind bars.

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