It’s been nearly seven years since Paul W. Bergrin, a former high-profile defense attorney and federal prosecutor, stood before a federal judge in Newark and learned he would spend the rest of his life in prison after being convicted of murder, drug trafficking, racketeering and other crimes.
The flashy attorney, who once represented rap stars, alleged drug traffickers and other prominent clients before prosecutors uncovered he used his law firm as a de facto criminal enterprise, received six life sentences in 2013, but has continued to fight for his potential freedom.
Bergrin has repeatedly filed post-trial motions and appeals to overturn his conviction, but with no luck so far.
Bergrin’s latest effort was a 2016 motion for a new trial, in which he argued that he had discovered new evidence that warranted a new trial and could potentially acquit him of the laundry list of crimes on which he was convicted. The ex-Army major wrote that he had learned key government witnesses “fabricated their testimony against him,” including his role in the murder of Kemo Deshawn McCray, an FBI informant who was set to testify against one of Bergrin’s clients, and possibly Bergrin himself.
But that effort received a blow last month when U.S. District Judge Madeline Cox Arleo denied his motion for a new trial, writing that much of the evidence brought forth by Bergrin after his conviction was “not newly discovered” and what was new didn’t meet the legal burden for a new trial.
On Tuesday, Bergrin, who is serving his life sentences in a maximum security prison in Colorado, appealed that decision up to the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, according to online court records.
Larry Lustberg, Bergrin’s attorney, said the case is a “tragedy” and “we will not rest as long as there is an open avenue to achieving justice for Mr. Bergrin.”
“Of course, he is very disappointed that the Judge did not see fit to undo the injustice of his conviction and did not recognize that he truly is an innocent man – not only with respect to the Kemo murder, as to which there is absolutely no evidence against him, but also with regard to his drug convictions, which were based entirely upon the testimony of convicted felons who lied because testifying against Paul Bergrin would gain them their freedom,” Lustberg said in a statement. “These criminals understood that the Government was out to get Paul, and capitalized on that knowledge.”
The appeal is the latest chapter in Bergrin’s demise from a former federal prosecutor to a once-prominent criminal defense attorney who prosecutors said used his connections in the criminal underworld to enrich himself.
During the eight-week trial in which Bergrin was convicted on all 23 counts (the first trial ended in a hung jury), prosecutors laid out how Bergrin used his law firm to aid in criminal activity, like plotting murders of potential witnesses, including McCray, helping drug trafficking organizations sell product and promoting prostitution.
The most damning charge Bergrin faced was for his role in the 2004 killing of McCray, the FBI informant who prosecutors said was set to testify against one of Bergrin’s clients and expose the attorney’s role in a violent drug trafficking organization in Newark. Anthony Young, the man who confessed to killing McCray, testified at Bergrin’s trial that the attorney approached gang members and told them McCray’s testimony could put a fellow gang member behind bars for life.
Unless, they did something about it.
“No Kemo, no case,” Bergrin reportedly said.
Bergrin’s role in McCray’s murder repeatedly came up in his 2016 motion for a new trial, arguing that testimony surrounding the killing, including from Young, was “fabricated” and he discovered new evidence to prove it.
In one instance, Bergrin described recordings of jailhouse calls from an alleged drug trafficker that he said showed Young lied about the meeting when he said, “No Kemo, no case.”
However, Bergrin, who represented himself at trial, admitted that he had the tapes before his trial began, but did not listen to them because prosecutors did not prioritize them in their case or introduce them at trial. He wrote that he was “severely constrained” going through evidence as he tried to represent himself.
But like the majority of Bergrin’s motion for a new trial, Arleo didn’t buy the argument that the recordings were newly discovered evidence.
The judge wrote in her denial that Bergrin is “not the typical” defendant who chooses to represent themselves.
“He is an experienced former state and federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney who, in those capacities, has had extensive training in pre-trial preparation,” she wrote. … “Against this backdrop, the Court is hard-pressed to find any justification for (Bergrin) decision not to review a single audio recording …. before (his trial).”
As Bergrin continues his fight for a new trial, he routinely writes legal briefings and documents about his life in the USP Florence ADMAX, the country’s most secure prison, according to online court records. Lustberg, Bergrin’s attorney, said his client is in “isolation every minute of every day.”
In a November 2019 letter to Judge Arleo, Bergrin wrote that his ability to do legal research was “abruptly removed” and it takes a “virtual miracle” for him to be able to access the prison’s law computer.
“This institution is as close to a modern concentration camp as possible,” he wrote. “There are absolutely no checks nor balances and flagrant sadistic misery, pain and sorrow are the norm.”
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Joe Atmonavage may be reached at [email protected]