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N.J. defense attorney sentenced to life for murder, racketeering

By Joseph Ax

NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - A once-prominent New Jersey defense attorney was sentenced to life in prison on Monday for transforming his law firm into a criminal organization in which he arranged the murder of an FBI informant, facilitated drug trafficking and helped run a prostitution ring.

Paul Bergrin, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey who later defended U.S. soldiers accused of atrocities at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and celebrities like the rapper L'il Kim, was once dubbed the "Baddest Lawyer in the History of Jersey' by New York Magazine.

He remained defiant at his sentencing hearing.

During a lengthy, rambling statement, Bergrin told U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh in Newark federal court that the government's allegations against him, including his conviction for plotting the execution of informant Kemo DeShawn McCray, were false.

"I'm humbled, but I'm not broken," Bergrin said. "I will go to my grave knowing I had nothing to do with the death of DeShawn McCray."

Bergrin, 57, was convicted in March on 23 counts, including racketeering and conspiring to murder a federal witness, after a nearly two-month jury trial.

One of his former colleagues, Paul Fishman, now the current U.S. Attorney for New Jersey whose office secured the conviction, attended the hearing on Monday.

"The sentence reflects the extreme seriousness of his crimes and the extent to which he betrayed the criminal justice system," Fishman told reporters following the hearing. "We just can't tolerate that."

Much of the public attention surrounding the case focused on the murder of McCray, who was shot to death in broad daylight on a Newark street in 2004 after providing information to law enforcement about one of Bergrin's clients. According to trial evidence, Bergrin told the client, "No Kemo, no case," setting the murder in motion.

Bergrin was also convicted of trafficking in hundreds of pounds of cocaine by using his law firm to connect suppliers with distributors and storing the drugs at a restaurant he operated.

In addition, he was also found guilty of helping Jason Itzler, the self-described "King of all Pimps", run a brothel. Itzler was sentenced to four years in prison in 2012 for promoting prostitution, criminal sale of a controlled substance and money laundering.

Bergrin represented himself throughout the proceedings. Attorney Lawrence Lustberg, who was appointed by the court to help Bergrin in his defense, said Bergrin would immediately appeal both the conviction and the sentence.

Bergrin was first tried in 201l, but the jury deadlocked. That case concerned only the McCray charges after a judge severed those counts from the rest of the indictment.

An appeals court later ruled that prosecutors could try Bergrin on all of the counts simultaneously, allowing them to introduce reams of additional evidence at his second trial, including secret recordings of him with an informant discussing how to murder another witness.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Edith Honan and Leslie Gevirtz)

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