Saturday, December 22, 2007

In Witness Killing, Prosecutors Point to a Lawyer

United States Attorney’s Office

Deshawn McCray was fatally shot on a Newark street before he could testify for the prosecution in a cocaine-selling trial.

Published: December 21, 2007

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.

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Scared Silent

Disturbing Twist

This is the seventh article in a series examining the problem of witness intimidation in New Jersey.

Previous Articles

Keeping Witnesses Off Stand to Keep Them Safe (Nov. 19, 2007)

Few Choices in Shielding of Witnesses (Oct 28, 2007

In Prosecution of Gang, a Chilling Adversary: The Code of the Streets (Sep 19, 2007

Fearful Witness Faces Trial for a Murder Seen, Then Unseen (July 29, 2007)

A Little Girl Shot, and a Crowd That Didn’t See (July 9, 2007)

With Witnesses at Risk, Murder Suspects Go Free (March 1, 2007)

Ronald Wittek/European Pressphoto Agency

Prosecutors claim that Paul Bergrin, a defense lawyer, facilitated the murder of Mr. McCray.

Mr. McCray was expected to testify against Mr. Bergrin's client William Baskerville, who was accused of selling cocaine.

Hakeem Curry, top, and William Baskerville.

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?


Vickie said...

It is said, "one rotten apple spoils the bunc" and that saying is true regarding this lawyer. Because of the immoral and illegal actions of one lawyer the rights of thousands of people charged in gang related incidents may be taken away in the state of New Jersey. We spoke about in class, that if this law is passed in New Jersey it will take away defendants rights to face their accuser. It will also put all of the defendants at a severe disadvantage because their lawyer will not be fully prepared for the case, and many innocent people may be found guilty.
There will also be politicians using funds for schools on their cruises to Bermuda, and crooked cops accepting bribes. But that doesn't mean that we will close down our political offices and police stations. we must face the fact that every system has flaws,and it is our job to protect witnesses, not eliminate their apperences all together.

Alyssa Cumberbatch said...

I don't believe that witness's names should be witheld before a court trail. This could leave the defendent potentially unprepared. I understand the consideration of this law is to protect witnesses, but it isn't exactly fair. Vickie was right when she said the most they can do is try to protect the witnesses to the best to their ability. In my opinion, they should release the witness names, and then put them into the protection program if a fear they will be in danger arises.

-Alyssa Cumberbatch

Anonymous said...

I do agree with what Vickie’s said if they want witness than they should do all they can to protect them. If they really want to win there case and put a very dangerous man behind bars than they should go all out to protect them. Or they won't have witness for there cases. Because people want to do the right thing but it’s hard to do it when you know or feel that your life is in danger. Vickie is right system have flaws. But this one is a hard one. If they pass this law lawyers won't be prepared for there cases. but if they don't pass the law some innocent people will died especially when it comes to case's involving gang and drug crimes. So may be they need to work a little harder with trying to protect the witness or come up with a law that helps. Or were going to have fewer witnesses and more crimes. And the criminals will just keep getting away with it and they'll just keep doing it.


Anonymous said...

Manpreet Kaur

Reading about a witness being murderded makes me believe that witness's names shouldn't be told. That can be a risk factor for the witness.I have a question, when does the safety of the witness "actually" be taken into full consideration, when the witness is near death?, I ask..They should think of giving protection to anyone who is a witness from the beginning.

Anonymous said...

Courteney Richardson..

I feel that every witness should be under protection for the simple fact of their life && to win the case. if you don't protect the witness that will make a lot more people not come forward and speak && that really is a bummer for the prosecutors && courts. I disagree with vickie with her blog comment, why wouldn't you want to have protection against the person your accusing? why would you jepordize someones life who's hear to help you? people life is very valuable ....

Courtney Wilson said...

I agree with those that felt the witness lists should be upheld. When giving these lists to the defense, this could also be like sending a hitman out to go find these people, especially in a gang-related trial. If the witnesses are too fearful, they wont show up to testify. In cases with this lawyer especially, I think the list should be upheld because of the high probability that a witness could end up dead.

Anonymous said...

J Dilan

I agree with Courtney Wilson when he says that the witness list should be held from the public for the witness’s safety. Just think if you put the list out there the witness’s could be targeted by a gang if it is a gang related case putting their life in jeopardy. I think that witness’s who come to tell the truth about a case should feel safe coming to a case and the life after the case. I think that the witness’s should be questioned and asked if they want there identity for the trial be anonymous or if the don’t care what happens to there name in the case. I think we should give them the options.

W Brown said...

If you deny access to the witness list to the defense team is that fair to the accused? Aren't we giving the opportunity to face our accusers?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Courtney. I also think that if you need witnesses in the court, they shouldnt be revealed because you can put their life in danger and they can be killed by anyone. There should be protection for the witnesses even if they are revealed to the people in the court. But it's very dangerous. Personally, I would not be a witness in court unless I was not revealed and it was a life or death situation.
-Simran kaur

Alyssa Faller said...

I completely agree with vicki and Kemi. I think that even though the defense might not be as prepared for a case, if they do not know the identity of a witness, the court should still not allow the witnesses name to be revealed. I think that it is tough enough to for witnesses to even give their statement, let alone have to tell the world who they are and what they saw or heard. I believe that it would be cruel to let the man on trial know who the witness was that saw him committing the crime. There have been some cases in the past where witness have been tampered with, our sworn to say anything, so when a witness actually gets murdered, its just more proof that their names should never be reviled.

Anonymous said...

I also agree Courtney, by revealing the witnesses in the court jeopardizing their lives. But if it comes to them revealing the witnesses then they definitely need protection. In this situation, giving a list to the defense could cause more killing so i believe that the witnesses should be anonymous.

-Anta R.

Anonymous said...

I agree with every one pretty much. They should have I room or something to put the witness so no one can see or hear the persons voice an get the information and then let them go and they won't be hurt.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mr. Brown its Zohra! I hope all is well in your economics class, I came across this youtube video and I think its a really good hot topic to discuss in your class. I dont know if the video is being bias or not or if you want to to use but I think the topic would raise eyebrows.

ps: i got an A in that class that posts articles and we discuss them in class. wooot!

Anonymous said...

I agree with almost what everyone said about how that if you need witnesses in the court, they shouldn't be revealed because you can put their life in danger and they can be killed by anyone and also they should gave the witness full protection if that person is or was good use to their question.

-Khizer Hayat

Anonymous said...

I believe that by changing the way witness are handled in court, you would have to change the whole the system for a fair trial to take place, Like Vickie was saying how would a defendant be able to fully prepare for a case. I think everything should stay the same but offer better protection to witness in gang related incedents. if a solution doesn't come quick alot of people would intemidated from being witnesses.


Anonymous said...

In todays world witness feel they shall not speak in front of people about anything they saw because they feel there lifes going to in indanger,its true because some feel speak the truth is lead to snitch but being a witness to a crime that happen and you saw it is not snitching because ur helping anothers life so another can't do what has happen. I feel if your a witness have protection well there should be protection because your life can be indanger no matter what the cirumstances are.

Kristal atchison

Bjorn Olivier said...

I think that the witness names should be withhehld before the court because the witness was brave enough to give the info that they knew. And for them to have there name in the court for the defendent to know who said it is wrong. That would just put the witness in moe of harms way.

Anonymous said...

The witnesses have the right to be held in secret. MOst people would help the law if they knew that their names would have been given out. Like Courtney said, people might want to take it out on them; endangering the witness life. This is a gang-related trial and to submit names would not be the smartest thing to do. IF this is the way the system is run, then more and more people would hold in all information because they might have their lives dangered.

_Peterson Saint Cyr

marcos said...

i m from brasil i lives americana today i m jail mr roberto marinho this men put pólice every day because i say i m son but dont have a judge adress globo tv rue evandro carlos de andrade 160 morumbi at sao paulo sp