“For anyone else, it would have been a setback, a career-killer. But Paul made it work for him,” said one prosecutor. Taking the local side against the haughty Feds, the jurisdictional town over gown, was an ultra-Jersey stiff finger for all time—an act worthy of an Essex County Machiavelli and one that would pay off big-time. “Even then, Paul was playing to the street,” said a Park Place lawyer. “He knew where the money was.”
Bergrin first hit the papers as a criminal lawyer in 1991, during his defense of a housewife accused of serving teens Jell-O shots at a party; a 15-year-old guest was hospitalized and died an hour later. By 1992, he was already under indictment for evidence tampering in a federal racketeering case. The charges were dropped two years later, setting the pattern for what would become a twenty-year legal tightrope walk.
Few denied Bergrin was an exceedingly talented, if occasionally overwrought, courtroom performer. “He had that military thing about him from his Army days,” said one observer. “He commanded the room. But it was more than that. Paul was passionate. This is Newark. Most of the defendants are black, and here was this white guy who seemed to really give a shit whether his client went to jail or not. In a place where today’s juror is tomorrow’s defendant, that connects.”
Said a local hustler with “double-figure” arrests behind him who I’ll call “Melvin B.,” “I’ve had a hundred fucking lawyers in my life, and Paul Bergrin was only one who looked me in the eye like a man. He cared. He knew the reality, how the deck was stacked, and was willing to fight fire with fire. He went to war for you. That’s why Paul was loved in the streets. Shit, Paul was revered in the streets.”
“Bergrin knew how the deck was stacked. He was willing to fight fire with fire. That’s why he was loved in the streets.”
Then, casually, Melvin let drop that he had done “a little legal work” for Paul Bergrin from time to time. “Yeah, I might have fixed a jury or two.” It was easy, Melvin said. “You don’t have to win; a hung jury is good enough.” Melvin explained his M.O. First he got himself into the jury-pool room. “When you’re a black man in Newark, you’re always going to know someone or someone who knows someone. You ask around. Find out who’s on which jury, make a deal. But sometimes they’ll come to you.
Listening to a description of a well-known Bergrin case in which Melvin claimed to have given a juror $10,000, one prosecutor exclaimed, “That’s exactly what I heard!”
This was the problem going up against Paul Bergrin in court, the prosecutor said. He was smart and without conscience. He knew the street, and he knew the system too. He knew how the prosecutor’s office worked, the calendar issues, the money constraints, when the bureaucrats would throw up their hands and drop the case. He had people on the inside. He made it his business to defend cops who got themselves in trouble and did work for the PBA. “That buys a lot of loyalty,” one prosecutor said. “When you had a lead in a Paul case, you had to act fast because you worried some cop would tip him off.”
Eventually, the prosecutor’s office investigated a number of Bergrin cases in which witnesses suddenly recanted or were killed. These included a 2006 trial in which Bergrin’s client James Dawson was acquitted of murder following the death of the key witness, Syreeta Lee. Bergrin said, “The only witness was Syreeta Lee. She is now dead. So there is no other evidence against my client.” Another Bergrin client, Norberto Velez, was charged with trying to kill his wife, repeatedly stabbing her in full view of their 8-year-old daughter. At trial, the child changed her story, absolving her father. Later the girl admitted in open court that Bergrin had coached her to lie on the stand.
It was awful, heartbreaking stuff, the prosecutor agreed. But, still, even with all he knew, he couldn’t find it in his heart to hate Bergrin. “What can I tell you, part of me still likes the guy. It is a strange thing.”
For all his transgressions, emotionally it isn’t an open-and-shut case with Bergrin. Many in Newark are highly sympathetic to Bergrin’s persistent defense of American soldiers accused of crimes during the Iraq War. In 2004, Bergrin defended Sergeant Javal Davis of the U.S. Army 372nd Military Police Company, who was charged with abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. According to witnesses, Davis, a onetime track-and-field star at his Roselle, New Jersey, high school, twice jumped onto a pile of naked prisoners. Davis was also said to have accompanied Lynndie England in stomping on detainees’ fingers and feet.