NEWARK, N.J. - The witnesses have been like those who take the stand in most federal drug cases - convicted narcotics traffickers; undercover cops; street hustlers; and girlfriends and mistresses.

For two weeks, they have testified in a fourth-floor courtroom of the U.S. courthouse here, answering questions posed by prosecutors and undergoing cross-examination by defense attorney Paul Bergrin.

Several are former clients of the stocky lawyer, who built his reputation and financed a lavish lifestyle defending some of North Jersey's most notorious drug kingpins.

The question before a jury and Judge William Martini is whether they were also, as the prosecution has alleged, Bergrin's partners in crime.

The former assistant federal prosecutor, who is representing himself, is charged with murder and murder conspiracy. Prosecutors allege that Bergrin arranged a hit on a witness who was to testify against a cocaine dealer he represented.

The witness, Kemo McCray, was gunned down in broad daylight on March 2, 2004, as he walked along South Orange Avenue here.

The charges against Bergrin were severed from a broader racketeering case in which he is accused of conspiracy to murder another witness, distribution of massive quantities of cocaine, money laundering, and the operation of a $1,000-a-hour call-girl ring.

Bergrin, 55, has denied all charges, but the indictment's portrayal of a high-profile lawyer gone bad has attracted national attention. Crowds at the trial have sometimes been more than the courtroom can hold.

The case is a tale of murder, money, sex, and betrayal that could fuel a cable TV drama for years.

In June, New York magazine headlined a profile about Bergrin "The Baddest Lawyer in the History of Jersey."

The description had nothing to do with his courtroom prowess - by all accounts, he is a top-notch lawyer. It was a reference to his street cred.

Bergrin, who once worked in the very office that is prosecuting him, built a criminal-defense practice around clients that included rappers and celebrities, such as Queen Latifah and Lil' Kim, and some of the best-known drug dealers in North Jersey.

Along the way, federal authorities allege, he became what he was defending - a gangster who dealt drugs, dabbled in prostitution, and routinely threatened, cajoled, bribed, and, on occasion, had witnesses killed to get his clients off the hook.

The testimony in his trial, which is expected to last three more weeks, offers a hint of the broader criminal enterprise that Bergrin allegedly set up, using his Park Place law firm here as its nerve center.

He faces a potential sentence of life without parole if convicted. And he faces the same sentence in the pending racketeering case.

Last week, the jury heard from two jailed drug dealers, one who said he was solicited by Bergrin to kill McCray and another who said he carried out the hit.

The trial, which began Oct. 17, also has included testimony from Bergrin's ex-girlfriend and alleged crime lieutenant, Yolanda Jauregui, and her brother Ramon Jimenez.

The testimony of Jauregui and Jimenez, who have pleaded guilty to drug charges and are cooperating with the prosecution, portrayed Bergrin as a supplier of cocaine to those he represented. In fact, Jimenez testified, the lawyer cut him out of a $25,000 drug deal.

Bergrin has been held without bail since his arrest more than two years ago. Each day, he trades his prison garb for tailored suits, starched white shirts, and power ties.

While the suits are no longer formfitting - prison has taken a toll on his once-solid frame - and there is now gray in his thick hair, Bergrin has retained his hard-charging courtroom demeanor.

He has verbally clashed with several witnesses and has been admonished by Martini on occasion to adjust his tone. The only time he softened his approach was Oct. 24, during his 25-minute cross-examination of Jauregui, observers said.

On Wednesday, he challenged the credibility of Alberto Castro, a former client whom he had represented on charges of drug dealing.

Out of the hearing of the jury, Martini told prosecutors he was less than impressed with the witness' honesty.

Bergrin, in a rapid-fire cross-examination, raised questions about nearly all of Castro's declarations. He challenged him on mundane facts, such as the number of times Bergrin represented him, and on crucial testimony about a meeting in which Castro said Bergrin tried to hire him to kill McCray.

Castro, who is serving 15 years for cocaine distribution, said Bergrin spoke to him in December 2003 and asked him to stop by his law office. He "offered me 10 grand to do a hit," Castro testified

"I said, 'Who?' " Castro continued from the witness stand. "He said a guy named Kemo. I never killed anybody. I thought it was a joke."

Castro, who claimed he was making $20,000 a week selling cocaine, said he turned down the request.

But he faltered on specifics about other events and appeared less than forthright when he said he didn't realize his cooperation with the state could win him a reduction in his prison sentence.

Bergrin appeared to score a point when he asked Castro if it made sense for the lawyer to offer him $10,000 to kill a man if Castro already made $20,000 a week.

Castro shrugged in reply.

Bergrin clashed later in the week with Anthony Young, the convicted drug dealer who said he was the man who walked up behind McCray and pumped three shots into his head.

Young's testimony is the foundation of the prosecution's case. He said the hit was set in motion during a meeting Bergrin had with members of a drug gang on a dark Newark street in December 2003, shortly after drug dealer William Baskerville had been arrested. Baskerville, a member of the gang he was meeting with, was Bergrin's client.

Authorities have alleged that Bergrin was a supplier for the drug ring and feared McCray's testimony might implicate him as well.

Repeating the phrase that has come to define the case against Bergrin, Young said that the lawyer told him and others at the meeting that McCray had to go.

"No Kemo, no case," he said Bergrin told them.

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.