Sean (Puffy) Combs, the 30-year-old rap mogul, has had his share of legal scuffles. Since 1991, when he was just wetting his feet in the music business, he’s been accused of overbooking a celebrity basketball game at which nine people were trampled to death, of menacing a photographer, and of beating a music executive with a chair, a champagne bottle and a telephone. On Dec. 27, he was back in police custody, this time for his alleged involvement in a shooting at midtown’s Club New York. And now, with a part-time driver likely to testify that Mr. Combs tossed a 9-millimeter pistol out the window of his car, the rapper faces his toughest legal troubles yet, two counts of illegal gun possession.
In this age of publicists and handlers, the right lawyer is everything for a celebrity with a sticky case. For Mr. Combs, having the right counsel could mean the difference between exoneration and 15 years in state prison, the maximum sentence for the crime of which he’s accused. As Mr. Combs, who was indicted by a New York County Supreme Court grand jury on Jan. 13, moves toward his next court date, such counsel is taking the shape of one Benjamin Brafman, the criminal defense lawyer whose legal skills earned club owner Peter Gatien his freedom in 1998.
“When a person with celebrity status is injected into the criminal justice system, he or she needs people beside them who are capable not only of dealing with the facts and legal issues presented by the case, but able to deal with the onslaught of attention that comes,” said the 51-year-old Mr. Brafman, who joined the Combs defense team recently at Johnnie Cochran’s behest. Also on the three-lawyer defense team is Bronx attorney Harvey Slovis, who represented Mr. Combs in the beating of record executive Steve Stoute last spring.
“This is an isolated incident that is alleged to have happened on Dec. 27, 1999, and the issue-and the only issue-is, did he have a gun on that night, or did he not?” said Mr. Brafman. “And he has steadfastly maintained that he did not, and I believe him, based on the evidence that I have seen to date.”
Still, the presence of Wardel Fenderson, who was driving Mr. Combs’ Lincoln Navigator when the rapper was pulled over by cops after the club shooting, remains troubling for Mr. Combs and his attorneys. If Mr. Fenderson told the grand jury he saw his boss throw a gun out of the car, that direct bit of eyewitness evidence would be tough to beat in a courtroom setting. (Another loaded 9-millimeter gun was found on the floor inside the car, but legal experts said that possession count is much less of a worry for Mr. Combs.)
“[If] there’s an actual witness who said they saw him throw a gun out the window, that’s fairly powerful,” said a defense lawyer who has followed the case. “The only way for them to attack that-on its face, at least-is [to] go after the veracity of the eyewitness.” Which leads back to Mr. Brafman, whose cross-examination expertise is highly regarded.
“Ben unequivocally is probably the best-forget about lawyer-best person I’ve ever met in my life. He is incredible with his opening, incredible with the jury,” said Mr. Gatien, who was acquitted of Federal charges of operating a drug-peddling ring out of his two Manhattan clubs, the Limelight and the Tunnel, largely due to Mr. Brafman’s diligence. “I can say without hesitation that Puffy’s in great hands.”
Besides Mr. Gatien, Mr. Brafman’s notable New York clients have included Daphne Abdela, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the 1997 Central Park lakeside murder of Michael McMorrow, and Alistair Duncan, convicted in a conspiracy to steal Tiffany glass from mausoleums. He briefly represented Salvatore (the Bull) Gravano in 1991, but said they parted ways once Mr. Gravano agreed to snitch for the Government.
The Combs case, however, elevates Mr. Brafman to a new level. It parachuted him into another kind of celebrity world, one that includes superstars like actress-singer Jennifer Lopez, Mr. Combs’ girlfriend who was with him on the night of the shooting, and spreads in People magazine and Vanity Fair .
Mr. Brafman is comfortable with that.
“Dealing with the media, dealing with the public, keeping a case from getting worse by exercising good judgment, and keeping people from exercising bad judgment, is part of what you develop as experience in cases like this,” Mr. Brafman said, sitting at the desk in his office at 767 Third Avenue at 48th Street. In the case of Mr. Combs, it was quickly addressed, with a conservatively dressed Mr. Combs facing the press at a large-scale press conference, flanked by his three-man legal defense “dream team” of the high-profile Mr. Cochran, the bulldog Mr. Brafman and the loyal Mr. Slovis.
Mr. Brafman, who stands 5 feet 6 inches tall, is no caricature of a powerful Manhattan attorney, however. According to his peers, he is a lawyer’s lawyer, and he dresses the part. Even the circular Band-Aid between the pinky and ring finger of his left hand seems carefully considered, an accouterment appropriate for his crisp shirt cuffs (buttoned at the wrist, not the forearm), his combed-back hair, his striped tie.
“Many people who are very anticriminal defense lawyer change their tune dramatically when it’s their ass that’s in the hot seat suddenly, and they need someone like you to stand beside them and oppose the government,” he said of his life’s work. “I think there are only very few things that are worse than being the defendant in a criminal case … It’s a shattering experience. I’ve probably talked more people out of committing suicide than most psychiatrists. And a lot of being a criminal defense lawyer is being a counselor, a rabbi, a priest, a friend … What the public sees is just the fun part.”
He said that his work has, in many respects, become tougher in recent years. “It’s changed dramatically in the last 10 years because of the advent of the Federal sentencing guidelines, that imposed significantly harsher penalties in white-collar criminal cases, which is the bulk of my practice. And it’s changed significantly as well because crime is the No. 1 issue on many people’s minds.”
The desk of Mr. Brafman’s corner office is organized into neat stacks of case files and memos. There’s an L-shaped seating area, and the walls are hung with press clippings and personal correspondence, plus a cartoonlike drawing of Mr. Brafman that reads “tough guy” in bold lettering. (An old framed note from the attorney’s son, David, written in a 7-year-old’s penciled hand, reads as follows: “My super hero is my father … I’m proud of my dad. He finished the Marathon. Even though he finished the Marathon when it was about 12:00 and it started at 7:00 in the morning.”)
Brafman & Ross employs six attorneys altogether; Mr. Brafman is the only equity partner.
Mr. Brafman, who like so many other successful criminal defense attorneys is a former prosecutor, he in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, describes his job as “horribly stressful.” He credits his sanity to his religiosity and his family-his wife, Lynda Brafman, a librarian, two grown children and two grandchildren, ages 1 and 3. Not to mention a healthy sense of mirth. “Max, my 3-year-old grandson, is someone who speaks now,” a poker-faced Mr. Brafman explained. “So I finally have someone to communicate with on my own level.”
The attorney, who was born in Brooklyn but lives on Long Island, is an Orthodox Jew. “A large portion of my extended family … were victims of the Holocaust,” he said. “My parents both miraculously survived and made it to the United States, and came here with nothing, and built an incredible family that’s very, very close. And I always believed that if members of my family could die for these principles, the least I could do was adhere to them.”
Indeed, Mr. Brafman added that, were it not for his observance of Shabbat on Friday nights and Saturdays, “I would have probably died a long time ago.”
A date has yet to be set for Mr. Combs’ next appearance in court. Should he be convicted, the stakes will be high; Mr. Combs has a prior conviction, having pleaded guilty last April to beating Mr. Stoute, an Interscope Records executive. Mr. Combs, who was represented by Mr. Slovis at the time, was sentenced to one day in an anger-management course, which he served, accompanied by Mr. Slovis.
Most likely to trip him up, legal observers said, is Mr. Federson’s testimony. “I think that if one of the people in the car is turning, or has turned, I think Ben will have his work cut out for him,” said Marvyn Kornberg, the lawyer who represented police officer Justin Volpe in the Abner Louima torture case. “However, he’s not beyond doing the job.”
Other lawyers said Mr. Cochran has played it smart in bringing on Mr. Brafman. “I don’t think Cochran can hold a candle to Brafman in the courtroom,” said Mr. Kornberg.
“It’s most likely that Brafman is going to be lead counsel,” said another defense attorney.
Mr. Brafman defers to his colleagues’ legal skills, but admits he’s comfortable before a Manhattan judge. “I think Johnnie Cochran is … a smart-enough lawyer to recognize that when you’re in somebody else’s backyard, it’s good to have someone who grew up in that neighborhood on your team,” Mr. Brafman said. “A lot of lawyers in his position would not want to share the stage or the limelight and, if necessary, would hire a relatively unknown person in New York just to sort of guide him through the procedural issues. But Johnnie has maintained from the beginning that what he wanted to do was put together the best team he could, to try and resolve this case favorably. I’m grateful he picked me.” (Mr. Cochran, handling a trial in Cleveland, could not be reached for comment.)
Regarding Mr. Slovis, Mr. Brafman said, “There’s a great deal of information he has, there’s a great deal of personal investigation he has conducted, and I think there’s an opportunity for him to continue to make a valuable contribution to the case.” Mr. Slovis said of Mr. Brafman: “He does great legal work.”
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