NEWARK - A federal judge today put off ruling on whether an attorney accused of murdering a federal witness will be held without bail or released.
After a second day of arguments that gave a glimpse at both sides' trial strategies, U.S. Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo said she expected to issue a decision tomorrow on whether Paul Bergrin should remain behind bars until his trial.
Bergrin, whose clients have included rappers Queen Latifah and Lil' Kim as well as a U.S. soldier stationed at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, is accused of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and racketeering in a 14-count federal indictment. He could face the death penalty if convicted on the murder counts.
The 53-year-old Monmouth County resident has been held in Philadelphia since his arrest last week.
The government has sought to have him held without bail, but Bergrin's attorney, Gerald Shargel, proposed to have him released under 24-hour home confinement with no access to cell phones or computers.
"Those conditions aren't acceptable," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gay told Arleo. "At the end of the day, they rely completely on Mr. Bergrin following the rules of the court, and his history indicates he will not follow the rules of the court."
Shargel spent a good portion of today's hearing cross-examining a Drug Enforcement Administration agent whose sworn statement was introduced by the government in support of its request to deny bail.
Under questioning by Shargel, Special Agent Michael Smith admitted that he had no independent knowledge of the allegations made in the statement, which included that Bergrin coached witnesses to lie in court and was connected to the murders of witnesses not mentioned in the federal indictment.
Smith said much of the information was provided by the FBI, which gleaned it from unnamed informants.
"You don't know how many layers of hearsay established this," Shargel said. "You don't have a scintilla of evidence that Mr. Bergrin did anything wrong."
Smith also said he had no direct evidence that Bergrin was hiding assets and property in other countries or that he possessed several fake passports, as the statement alleged.
Four other people were arrested with Bergrin in what the government has called a criminal enterprise that engaged in witness tampering, money laundering and drug trafficking.
One of the alleged co-conspirators, Vicente Esteves, is accused of plotting with Bergrin to kill a witness against Esteves in a Monmouth County drug case in 2008. According to the indictment, the person Bergrin solicited to do the killing ultimately taped their conversations for the government.
Gay dismissed Shargel's claim that the charge was spurious since the targeted witness, known as "Junior the Panamanian," was in jail at the time.
"The only reason he wasn't killed is that Mr. Bergrin hired a hit man who was an informant for the government," Gay said.
Bergrin, who appeared in court today handcuffed and wearing a green prison jumpsuit instead of his customary pinstriped suit, is a former Essex County assistant prosecutor who also worked as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Newark in the late 1980s.