By Joseph Ax
NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - New Jersey attorney Paul Bergrin facilitated a litany of crimes through his law firm, including drug trafficking, prostitution and the murder of an FBI informant, prosecutors said on Tuesday as his trial began in Newark federal court.
A former federal prosecutor and prominent defense lawyer, Bergrin, 57, faces charges that he orchestrated the 2004 murder of Kemo DeShawn McCray, an FBI informant and witness against one of his clients, as well as 24 other counts ranging from racketeering to conspiring to kill witnesses.
But Bergrin, who has represented rapper L'il Kim and U.S. soldiers accused of crimes in Iraq, said the government's case rests almost entirely on the testimony of career criminals intent on reducing their sentences.
"You'll find in this case conclusively that you can't trust any of the witnesses against me," Bergrin, who is acting as his own attorney, told the jury on Tuesday during opening arguments.
The witnesses include a number of Bergrin's former associates and clients who prosecutors acknowledge were active participants in Bergrin's criminal enterprise.
The trial represents the U.S. Justice Department's second attempt to prosecute Bergrin, dubbed "the baddest lawyer in the history of Jersey" by New York Magazine.
The first trial included only the McCray murder charges, after U.S. District Judge William Martini severed them from the rest of the indictment.
McCray was gunned down in broad daylight on a Newark street, after prosecutors claim Bergrin told a client, "No Kemo, no case," implying that McCray's death would help a gang associate beat criminal charges. A jury deadlocked in November 2011 on whether to convict Bergrin.
Since then, the case has traveled a labyrinthine legal path.
Last June, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia removed Martini from the case and ruled that he had erred in separating the McCray charges from the racketeering counts, which allege that all of Bergrin's crimes can be tied to the criminal enterprise he ran out of his law practice.
PROSECUTORS TO PRESENT NEW EVIDENCE
With two dozen additional counts to prove, prosecutors plan to introduce new evidence, including a recording of Bergrin allegedly telling a Chicago hit man to murder another witness and make it look like a home invasion.
"It cannot under any circumstances look like a hit," Bergrin allegedly told a Latin Kings gang member secretly working with the government, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gay.
But Bergrin said jurors would see that recording, when taken in context, for what it was: "bluffing" and "gamesmanship" in which Bergrin led the presumed hit man on after he realized the man had no intention of killing anyone.
In addition, prosecutors claim Bergrin was involved in trafficking hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, using his law firm to connect suppliers with distributors and allowing cocaine to be stored at a restaurant he owned.
He is accused of tampering with witnesses, including what Gay described as the "brainwashing" of a 9-year-old girl so that she would lie about the brutal stabbing of her mother by her father, a Bergrin client.
Bergrin also faces charges that he helped arrange for Jason Itzler, who gained notoriety in the media for calling himself the "King of all Pimps," to receive a phony paycheck from his law firm so Itzler could convince the parole board to let him travel to New York, where he ran a brothel.
"This case is about a lawyer who used his law license to disguise the fact that he was a drug dealer, a pimp and a murderer," Gay said.
Bergrin, however, said the jury would "be unable to separate fact from fiction" thanks to the unreliability of the government's witnesses.
"All I ask is that you keep an open mind," he said.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)