During the nearly two decades during which he was the go-to criminal defense counsel for all manner of accused Jersey crooks and killers, Paul Bergrin often arrived at court in a Bentley and $4000 suits. This past Monday, however, when Bergrin, his once-thick black mane turned a feathery gray, appeared in a Newark federal courtroom, he wore a white T-shirt, loose khaki pants, and handcuffs. Instead of his usual gung-ho courtroom demeanor, Bergrin, incarcerated since his May 2009 arrest with many months spent in solitary confinement, looked sallow, beaten down. Still, when a defendant faces life imprisonment on charges including plotting to murder federal witnesses and high-volume drug dealing, he needs a good lawyer, a lawyer who truly understands his client’s motivations. So Bergrin hired himself.
Judge William Martini, who will preside when Bergrin’s trial begins on October 11, did not think much of the defendant’s decision. Calling the decision to go pro se “foolish” and fraught with “many perils,” the judge repeatedly urged Bergrin to reconsider. Acknowledging Bergrin’s long history as a barrister, one who often bragged of winning fourteen homicide cases in a row, Judge Martini made clear that none of the Jersey lawyer’s trademark swagger would be condoned in his courtroom. For security reasons, Bergrin would be highly constrained in his movements. He would not be allowed to approach any witness during cross-examination, his opening and closing arguments restricted to standing behind a podium. Moreover, owing to his incarcerated state, Bergrin’s access to computers and the law library during trial would be sharply curtailed. Nonetheless, Martini granted Bergrin’s request. A man is entitled to representation of his choice.
The erstwhile baddest lawyer in Jersey history faced limited options. For one thing, he appears to be broke and can no longer afford to pay Lawrence Lustberg, the prominent Newark criminal lawyer who will now operate as Bergrin’s “standby” attorney. Lustberg will be able to advise Bergrin, but as Judge Martini pointed out, Bergrin will largely be on his own once the trial begins. Bergrin asked one dispensation. In what appeared to be a matter of the heart, he asked that Lustberg be allowed to cross-examine Yolanda Jauregui, Bergrin’s longtime lover and, until recently, his co-defendant. Jauregui’s guilty plea turned her into a potentially powerful state witness and apparently Bergrin was not of a mind to attempt to destroy her story in open court. Judge Martini, not a sentimentalist, said it was not likely he would grant this request.
In the end, hardened observers of Jersey jurisprudence indicate that Bergrin’s decision was inevitable. However twisted, the man saw himself as grand player on the battlefield between right and wrong. Given the opportunity to declare his own innocence, this was one case he’d never turn down.