NEWARK — For prosecutors in New Jersey, much about the 2004 murder of Deshawn McCray was all too familiar: Yet another key witness in a major drug case had been shot dead before he could testify in court.
But there was one aspect of the killing that especially alarmed and infuriated prosecutors. They believed that a defense lawyer — a former prosecutor — had played a role in facilitating the murder.
The United States attorney has said that that lawyer, Paul Bergrin, relayed Mr. McCray’s identity to friends of one of his clients, a gang member who was facing life in prison on drug charges. The prosecutors said he had even met with members of his client’s gang in person to make clear what was at stake.
“No Kemo, no case,” Mr. Bergrin told the gang members, using Mr. McCray’s nickname, according to testimony in federal court this year.
Three months later, Mr. McCray was shot in the head by one of the gang members on a Newark street.
“Paul Bergrin was a pivotal part of the conspiracy to kill Kemo McCray,” an assistant United States attorney, Joseph Minish, said in court. “Without him, it would not have taken place.”
Prosecutors will not speak publicly now about Mr. Bergrin. They have never charged him in connection with the killing or in any other case in which witnesses might have been intimidated or harmed. They have indicated that problems with safeguarding key evidence — including a wiretapped conversation involving Mr. Bergrin — have left them unable to pursue a prosecution.
But for law enforcement officials in New Jersey who have struggled to combat the widespread problem of witness intimidation, the claims about Mr. Bergrin amount to a particularly disturbing twist on a growing threat.
Mr. Bergrin, in an interview, denied any involvement in knowingly endangering a witness. He said that he had never met with gang members, and that anyone who claimed that he conspired to harm a witness was lying.
“I had nothing to do with the homicide of any witnesses whatsoever,” said Mr. Bergrin, who continues to practice criminal defense law in New Jersey. “I would never partake in any kind of action related to that kind of conduct.”
Law enforcement officials in New Jersey, though, have long been concerned about cases involving Mr. Bergrin’s clients, many of them gang members.
In one case, murder charges against Mr. Bergrin’s client were dropped after a prosecution witnesses was killed. In another murder case and a shooting case, charges were reduced after witnesses were intimidated and recanted their previous statements. And in 2005, a witness against one of Mr. Bergrin’s clients in a murder case changed his story after the defendant’s relatives gave him $1,050 in Mr. Bergrin’s office — and later pleaded guilty to making the payment.
Mr. Bergrin was not present in the office at the time, and he said he had no knowledge of any such payment. “There was never any allegation that I was involved,” he said.
The only legal or professional scrutiny Mr. Bergrin is currently known to face, in fact, is in New York City, where prosecutors have charged him with running New York Confidential, a brothel that charged $1,000 an hour.
The office of the Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, has accused Mr. Bergrin of taking over the business from a former client and using it to offer sexual favors to unnamed New Jersey law enforcement officers and jail guards — people who were in a position to keep him informed about what inmates might be planning to cooperate against his clients.
Mr. Bergrin has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer, Gerald Shargel, called the charges “nonsense.”
The possible role of defense lawyers in the intimidation of witnesses has angered prosecutors in New Jersey for years, and has recently attracted the interest of state legislators.
For their part, prosecutors say they have grown weary of a familiar sequence of events: Shortly after they provide defense lawyers with copies of a witness’s statement, as they are required by law to do, the threats, warnings and outright attacks begin.
In gang cases prosecuted in cities including Trenton, Newark and Camden, it is not unusual for a witness’s statement to be photocopied within days of being turned over to the defendant’s lawyer, and then be posted on telephone poles or circulated throughout the neighborhood.
State officials are hoping to offer witnesses greater protection, state officials are pushing for laws to restrict the information released to lawyers for certain criminal defendants.
A bill now being considered by the State Legislature and supported by the state attorney general would require that prosecutors handling gang cases turn over only a witness’s name, and make it a felony for defense lawyers to provide their clients with addresses or other identifying information.
“The defendants have a right to know the evidence against them,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, a sponsor of the bill. “But witnesses have a right not to be harassed.”
But even supporters of that measure concede that it will be of limited value because many gang crimes occur in neighborhoods or drug organizations so tightknit that all it takes to locate a witness is a name — or a nickname.
Mr. Bergrin, 52, built a reputation as something of a legal maverick as he moved from prosecutor to defense lawyer.
After a decorated career in the Army infantry, he was a prosecutor for the United States attorney’s office in New Jersey and the Essex County prosecutor’s office, preparing his cases with a ferocity that impressed his colleagues and intimidated his opponents. Mr. Bergrin — the son of a Brooklyn police officer and a graduate of law school at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — bragged that as a prosecutor he won convictions on every homicide case he handled.
He entered private practice sometime before 1990, and since then, Mr. Bergrin’s client list has allowed him to move through divergent worlds. He has represented celebrities like Queen Latifah; soldiers accused of murdering Iraqi detainees; Angelo Prisco, a Genovese crime family boss; and a former Mrs. New Jersey, who was accused of passing $70,000 in bad checks.
And he has won acquittals in more than a dozen murder trials, a track record that has made his name familiar along Newark’s streets and cellblocks.
Mr. Bergrin’s dealings with those clients has provoked criticism from prosecutors and police officials who say he has become far too close to the accused drug dealers and gangsters he represents.
Mr. Bergrin defends his work.
“When you represent thousands of individuals, have had hundreds of homicides and violent crimes, you can’t be held responsible for every time a witness gets talked to or intimidated or threatened,” he said.
In Mr. McCray’s case, the events leading to his slaying began in November 2003, prosecutors have said, when Mr. Bergrin met with a client named William Baskerville, who had just been arrested on charges of selling more than 50 grams of cocaine.
The prosecutors’ charges about Mr. Bergrin emerged at Mr. Baskerville’s trial. Mr. Bergrin had been removed as his lawyer, but he was a central character in the story prosecutors told in court.
Court records and telephone logs show that shortly after visiting Mr. Baskerville in jail, Mr. Bergrin called Hakeem Curry — Mr. Baskerville’s cousin and Newark’s most powerful heroin distributor — and told him the identity of the prosecution’s star witness.
“I got a chance to speak to William, and he said the informant is a guy by the name of K-Mo,” Mr. Bergrin told Mr. Curry, according to a transcript of the conversation, which was taped.
Later that week, according to prosecutors, Mr. Bergrin met with Mr. Curry and two other relatives of Mr. Baskerville’s to discuss the case. One of the gang members who prosecutors said was present at the meeting was Anthony Young.
Mr. Young testified that Mr. Bergrin had warned everyone at the meeting that if Mr. McCray were to take the stand, Mr. Baskerville would almost certainly be convicted of charges that would bring a mandatory life sentence. Based on Mr. Bergrin’s statement, Mr. Young testified, Mr. Curry’s organization paid him $15,000 to kill Mr. McCray because “he has to be pushed, he has to be handled, we have to knock him off.”
In the weeks that followed, Mr. Baskerville bragged to fellow inmates that he had sent word to have his witness killed, they testified. On March 3, 2004, as Mr. McCray and his stepfather were walking back from a Newark convenience store, Mr. Young ambushed them.
Three bullets struck Mr. McCray in the head. Mr. Young, who confessed and cooperated in Mr. Baskerville’s prosecution, was sentenced to life and avoided a possible death sentence. At Mr. Baskerville’s trial, the prosecutor, in his summation, said of Mr. Bergrin, “Don’t think, ‘How could a lawyer do this?’ I hope you’re not thinking that. He was in on it, ladies and gentlemen. There is no doubt about it.”
Mr. Bergrin said that he was bewildered by the United States attorney’s assertion that he had sought to have Mr. McCray killed. He said he had spoken to Mr. Curry about the case only at the request of his client’s mother, who had informed him that Mr. Curry was her son’s cousin.
“I was just relaying the strengths and the weaknesses of the case with my client’s relative because of his close relationship,” Mr. Bergrin said.
But federal officials have described Mr. Bergrin in open court as the “house counsel” of Mr. Curry’s drug organization, which they said was responsible for more than 80 percent of the heroin distributed in Newark. Dealers who worked for Mr. Curry have testified that Mr. Bergrin was equal part lawyer and friend whose main duty was to monitor all the cases to be certain that no one cooperated with prosecutors.
The United States attorney for New Jersey, Christopher Christie Jr., has not brought charges against Mr. Bergrin, partly because an assistant prosecutor did not properly safeguard the tapes of wiretapped conversation involving him, meaning that they may not be admissible as evidence in court.
“Any suggestion that I tried to prevent people from cooperating or had other motives is absolutely false,” Mr. Bergrin said. “I work incredibly hard on all of my cases and am available at all hours of the night to represent my clients.”
Should witness lists be withheld in gang related cases?