Declaring that Davis was only following orders, Bergrin requested subpoenas for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush. They were the ones who changed the rules of engagement regarding treatment of the enemy, Bergrin charged, not Javal Davis. Colleagues recognized the subpoenas (which were denied) as typical Bergrin grandstanding, a histrionic ploy from the Park Place playbook. But it struck a chord with Fran Hunsaker, mother of William Hunsaker, a member of the 101st Airborne Division who was accused of participating in the 2006 execution of three suspected Al Qaeda operatives near Samarra. Hunsaker was eventually sentenced to serve eighteen years, but Fran Hunsaker remains “eternally grateful to Paul. He was the only one who really stood up for those boys. He made five trips to Iraq at his own expense. He was a David against an army of Goliaths. That’s why he’s in trouble now. That indictment is one big lie. I know Paul, and that’s just not him. His soul is good. I think of my son Bill in Leavenworth and Paul in jail in Brooklyn and see them the same way. Two innocents crushed by a corrupt system.”
Bergrin agreed with this sentiment. In a series of e-mails sent from his Brooklyn cell, the Iraq cases were the only thing he wanted to discuss. It was like the rest of that stuff never happened. He saw defending members of the American military as a solemn duty. Several of his relatives had served in the armed forces, Bergrin wrote. “All I ever dreamed of was following in their footsteps.” To him, the plight of the American soldier was no different from that of “the vast majority” of the people he defended in Newark. As he told a reporter during the Davis trial, “the pressures on an Army or Marine captain and a Bloods crew leader are the same. These guys are soldiers, pawns in the game, thrown into battle, and no one cares what happens to them.”
This was the core of the matter, as Bergrin explained on a YouTube video called “Know Your Rights,” in which he tells an East Orange community group that if he’d learned anything in his legal career, it was that police could not be trusted to tell the truth. “If you ever sit on a jury … if you ever have an opportunity to speak to other individuals, then let them know that we live in a system where people are treated differently, and the only way you can fight it is by pouring your entire body, heart, and soul into each and every case. And that is what I intend to do.”
On Park Place, such commentary did not go unnoticed. “Paul said he was a street lawyer,” said one attorney, “that he functioned according the laws of the street, not those made up to serve crooked politicians and protectors of power. He sounded like some sixties radical. And I thought, Well, he’s right. Things aren’t fair. The system sucks. I see the inequities every day. Hearing Paul talk like that made me think he could have really been something, a leader, an inspiration. I also thought, if this is what Paul believes, and that’s his justification for everything he’s done, he’s out of his fucking mind.”
This has become a key point of discussion on Park Place: Bergrin’s mental state. Words like “megalomania,” “narcissist,” and “sociopath” have been bandied about in the buffed hallways of the Essex County courthouse.
On this topic I submit an encounter I had with Bergrin back in 2005, when I was working on a story on the demise of NY Confidential, the aforementioned escort service near City Hall. Jason Itzler, the agency’s mercurial founder, was then imprisoned on Rikers Island, facing prostitution and money-laundering charges. Itzler was not worried, however. He had unshakable faith in his lawyer, Paul Bergrin.
“I was still on parole from this Ecstasy-smuggling bust at Newark Airport and had a 9 p.m. curfew, which was messing up my ability to run the agency,” Itzler said. “So I went to see Paul. I heard he could fix anything in New Jersey. I tell him my problem and he says, ‘Okay, give me $10,000! Right now! In cash!’ I told him I only had $8,000. He said, ‘But you’ve got the rest at your place. Let’s go.’ We get into his BMW, barrel through the Holland Tunnel. Paul looks at the murals, the baby grand piano, the girls. ‘Forget the $2,000,’ he says. A few days later, Itzler had a no-show job as a paralegal in Bergrin’s law office, supposedly working until three in the morning on difficult legal matters like the Javal Davis case. Bergrin wrote letters to the parole board attesting to Itzler’s excellent progress toward rehabilitating himself.