The only thing missing from the Sean (Puffy) Combs trial
thus far-with the possible exception of anti-fur activists who seem destined to
show up any minute now to make Puffy pay for his
politically-incorrect-to-critters fashion show at Bryant Park on Feb. 10-is
Jennifer Lopez. But if the early, made-for-TV rounds of the trial are any
indication of things to come, she’ll probably provide a star turn eventually,
arriving for court in some variation of an Upper East Side private girls’
school uniform, and acquit herself beautifully.
The trial, for those who have been out of Earth’s orbit for
the past few weeks, stems from a shooting that occurred at Club New York, a
midtown nightclub, in December 1999 after Puffy, the rap mogul, and another
clubgoer nicknamed Scar (any resemblance to George Lucas’ Star Wars bar may be more than coincidental) exchanged words. Jamal
Barrow, a.k.a. Shyne, a rap star in his own right and a Combs protégé,
allegedly came to his mentor’s defense by producing a gun and shooting three
innocent bystanders in the process.
Mr. Barrow is charged with attempted murder. Mr. Combs, who
fled the scene with Ms. Lopez, is on trial for gun possession and bribing a
witness, because he allegedly produced a gun of his own during the mêlée and
then tried to get his driver to take the rap for possessing it. Puffy’s
bodyguard, Anthony (Wolf) Jones, also sits at the defense table, charged with
gun possession and bribing a witness.
The trial, which began on Jan. 29, became more interesting
in its second week than anybody had reason to expect, with Mr. Combs emerging
through the testimony of the victims as a hip-hop Jay Gatsby (a Hamptons
resident of an earlier, less violence-prone era), a magical being imbued with a
superior destiny for whom the crowds parted, literally, as he and his beautiful
Daisy, Ms. Lopez, and their entourage passed by.
“He stopped and was greeting people. Sean Combs stopped and
was shaking hands,” testified Julius Jones, a clubgoer. A few minutes later,
testified Mr. Jones, shots ricocheted around Club New York.
When Scar, whose real name is Matthew Allen, refused to
reciprocate Puffy’s “smack,” or friendly greeting, “I saw him standing there
looking in shock,” Mr. Jones remembered of Mr. Combs.
Part of the appeal of the trial is that it seems as much
about anthropology and male dominance as it does about guilt or innocence. In
Scar, an unsavory character who has apparently disappeared-and for whom, one
suspects, neither the District Attorney nor the defense is searching too
avidly-Puff Daddy may have met his match, at least in the testosterone
In the testimony department, Mr. Combs and his co-defendants
will have to overcome the story told by Natania Reuben, a former hairdresser
who now works at the front desk of an undisclosed hotel and is an aspiring
singer herself (she goes by the name Eboné). While visiting Club New York on
Dec. 27, 1999, she said, she saw Puffy pull out a black gun with his right hand
after Shyne pulled out his, and watched the “muzzle flashing” of both weapons
discharging. One of the bullets hit her. She described the sensation as a
“flaming hot sledgehammer hitting my face.”
Dr. Alan Hirschfeld, a neurosurgeon at St. Vincents
Hospital, where Ms. Reuben was taken by ambulance, testified later on Feb. 5
that the bullet had entered through her right nostril and traveled in an almost
horizontal direction backwards, splitting into several fragments, the largest
of which lodged behind her nose, where the base of the skull meets the spine.
The victim, in tears, testified that she still gets severe headaches as a
result of her injuries.
Ms. Reuben may well be a con artist who sees in an innocent
Puff Daddy a multimillion-dollar payday (in a separate civil case, she’s suing
the rap mogul for $150 million), as one of Mr. Combs’ lawyers, Benjamin
Brafman, insinuated during his cross-examination. Yet, given the sympathy her
injuries and tears would reasonably have provoked in the jury, one might have
assumed that Mr. Brafman would have destroyed her with a bit more tact.
Instead, he went after her like a bulldog. In that sense,
and at the risk of extending canine metaphors too far, Mr. Brafman and
Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos-both small men-are evenly matched.
The diminutive but pugnacious Mr. Bogdanos rips into the defense in general,
and Mr. Brafman in particular, like a Jack Russell terrier going after a
This was particularly true on Feb. 9, when the two tangled
loudly over the description of the secret compartments, or “traps,” in Mr.
Combs’ fully loaded (if you’ll excuse the expression) Lincoln Navigator. Police
Detective John Martin, a self-taught expert on concealed compartments, volunteered
that one of the traps was just about the perfect size for a “sawed-off
shotgun,” even though no weapons were found in the car.
Mr. Brafman argued successfully that the gun-compartment
references be stricken.
Mr. Brafman’s only other real accomplishment, facing Ms.
Reuben on the morning of Feb. 5 (of course, he may have been laying the
groundwork for something as yet invisible, when the defense’s turn comes to
present its case), was to expose her as an individual perhaps a bit too proud
of her diction. When Mr. Brafman confronted her with a piece of her grand-jury
testimony having to do with her description of Mr. Combs’ garments, Ms. Reuben
challenged its veracity, stating that “it’s not consistent with the sentence
structure you learn in second grade.”
This was greeted with barely muffled hoots from Mr. Combs’
cheering section. “It’s like she had Hooked on Phonics the last year,” sniffed
Rhonda Cowan, who described herself as “a friend of Puffy’s,” during the next
The scene outside the courtroom is actually far less hectic
than one might expect, perhaps having something to do with the presence of
several bodyguards who wear Secret Service–like medallions in their lapels and
follow Mr. Combs at a discreet distance wherever he goes, including to the bathroom.
It is likely also abetted by a gag order placed on the participants in the
case, making it difficult for either side to do the kind of sidewalk
grandstanding that marks the typical New York celebrity trial.
However, few fans or groupies have joined the spectacle thus
far. Most of those in attendance, who have included several ministers, appear
to have some direct connection to the rap mogul, either personally or
professionally, or to his family.
“Sean is the reason I’m able to make a living,” explained
Gary Jenkins, a record producer. “The doors are very open because of the work
he’s done, the path he’s blazed. We owe him a great debt of gratitude. In my
mind, he’s a great man.”
When asked their opinion of some of the more incriminating
testimony, Mr. Combs’ supporters-some of whom sport gold crucifixes the size of
hood ornaments-invoke concepts such as fate, destiny and religion. “I know God
is going to see justice at the end of it,” stated Keisha Spivey, a young woman
with a diamond nose stud and an arresting silver-colored cowlick, who
identified herself as a member of Total, one of the groups on Mr. Combs’ label.
“I think [Natania Reuben] has a very smart rap, very sarcastic, and it’s not
going to get her views seen.”
The court is dark on Tuesdays as the presiding judge,
Charles Solomon-who deserves credit for preventing the trial from devolving
into a circus, as it occasionally gives the indication of wanting to do-deals
with matters of judicial housekeeping. But Feb. 7 started with arguments, in
the street sense rather than the strictly legal sense, over precisely one of
those potential distractions.
Mr. Bogdanos accused the defense of distributing a video to
the media that featured Ms. Reuben on People’s
Court (say what you will about her, but Ms. Reuben apparently has faith in
the legal system), where she sued her landlord and allegedly fabricated
One resists the temptation to critique an attempted-murder
trial with real-life victims as if it were the latest installment of Survivor , but a defendant such as Mr.
Combs-who hires the attention-getting Johnnie Cochran as part of his defense
team and has a high-powered public relations firm, Dan Klores Communications
(which also represents this newspaper), spinning reporters during breaks-invites
“An agent of Mr. Combs,” Mr. Bogdanos sputtered in
indignation, referring to the Klores team, was handing out copies of the video
“outside 111, your Honor’s courtroom.”
The Judge turned his stern gaze upon Mr. Brafman.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” the lawyer stated,
suddenly sounding less like the legal eagle he is and more like a 10-year-old
disavowing any knowledge of the line drive his buddy just hit through the
“I know that,” said Judge
Charles Solomon, with perhaps just a touch of irony in his voice. “You would
agree with me there’s something wrong in that if that happened.”
Mr. Brafman didn’t necessarily.
The other victims in this case-besides the official ones who
were shot and trampled-may eventually come to include both Jamal Barrow, who
played Robin to Mr. Combs’ Batman the night of the incident, and Anthony Jones,
Mr. Combs’ bodyguard. Their defenses almost seem an afterthought. Whenever it
comes time to question a witness, Mr. Combs’ team of Brafman and Cochran gets
the first crack-though this is apparently by pre-arrangement among defense
counsel at the start of the trial, not because of Mr. Combs’ status in the
One wonders what must be going through the other defendants’
heads when they see all the attention lavished on Mr. Combs by both the
prosecution and the defense-though perhaps they’re so thoroughly indoctrinated
in the cult of Puff Daddy that they think it only right. Shyne, who has the
unlined face of a pre-adolescent, sits quietly, virtually expressionless,
between his two lawyers: Murray Richman, a Bronx practitioner whose style of
questioning more closely resembles Jackie Mason’s than Perry Mason’s, and Ian
Niles, who has thus far undertaken none of the cross examination.
Mr. Jones, also known as Wolf, is almost the caricature of a
bodyguard. He sometimes sports a toothpick in his mouth. His back is the width
of a panel truck, and when he lumbers out of the courtroom during breaks, the
light that shines from his eyes appears to be of rather low wattage.
Mr. Combs, by contrast, fairly crackles with restrained
energy. His face is gaunt, hollow-cheeked, almost undernourished, as if,
despite his notoriously high-living lifestyle, he could never possibly consume
enough calories to replenish those his kinetic, deal-making personality
Upon hearing the testimony by doctors of the human body’s
helplessness against hollow-tipped lead traveling at 1,200 feet a second, Mr.
Combs’ expression is less one of remorse or even compassion than it is of
melancholy-as if he’s having a nightmare from which he has yet to find a way to
Perhaps his only concession to the seriousness of the
charges against him has come in his wardrobe. The fur-trimmed winter wear of
yore has been replaced by either black or navy-blue banker’s suits, white
cotton Oxford shirts and tasteful neckties-though on Friday, Feb. 9, he showed
up in court dressed in gray slacks and a sweater over a white shirt with silver
cufflinks. Whether he was simply observing casual Fridays, or conceding that it
might take longer to extricate himself from this mess than he previously
thought and he ought to make himself comfortable, was impossible to say.
Johnnie Cochran took over the cross examination on Feb. 7 of
Julius Jones, a prosecution witness who had none of Ms. Reuben’s diva-prone
baggage. (She ended her sparring match with Mr. Brafman Monday afternoon by
telling him, not entirely sincerely, to “have a nice day.”)
Mr. Cochran’s skills have obviously been cataloged during
his defense of a certain arthritic former football player, but perhaps the
greatest is that he projects a countenance free of the complexes that plague
ordinary mortals. He’s the essence of cordiality, even when attempting to
vivisect a witness such as Mr. Jones, who proved far more formidable than his
casual appearance and semi-stoned delivery would have foretold.
All the contestants-the
prosecutor, the defense lawyers and the defendants themselves-are expected to
rise to their feet when the jury enters and leaves the courtroom. And while Mr.
Brafman seems to do so with poorly disguised impatience, and Mr. Combs stuffs
his hands into his pants pockets, Mr. Cochran is almost reverent. All his
energy is focused either on Mr. Combs and his well-being, or on the jury. While
Mr. Brafman seems to play to the press, Mr. Cochran rarely acknowledges their
presence, at least not in the courtroom.
“I think he has absolutely great people skills,” observed
Michael Bachner, bodyguard Anthony Jones’ lawyer. “Despite this whole O.J.
thing, he’s a very trustworthy figure, and I think it comes across that way.”
Julius Jones, one of the shooting victims, is a 28-year-old
part-time Parks Department employee whose pleasures include, in no particular
order, basketball, “strange girls” (his description of some of his anonymous
dance partners the night of the shooting) and Alizé, the malt liquor he was
consuming at Club New York on the night in question (though a couple of
club-savvy spectators outside the courtroom described it as more of a cognac),
to say nothing of the passing “pull” from a marijuana joint, of which he also
partook that evening. He testified that he was standing a couple of feet away
from where the altercation between Mr. Combs and Scar, the missing antagonist,
According to Mr. Jones, it started when Scar refused to
reciprocate “a five, a smack,” the touching of fingers that Puffy offered him.
“Then I heard people arguing, pushing and shoving and shit,”
said Mr. Jones, whose use of expletives seemed utterly unrehearsed.
Shortly after that, and after someone had thrown money at
Mr. Combs-a further sign of disrespect-the celebrity allegedly produced a
weapon in his right hand. “I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Jones said. “It was
like, ‘What the fuck?’”
Then he said he saw Shyne pull out a gun (possibly the
trial’s most disconcerting moments occur when the lawyers or witnesses wave or
cock the weapons in question, ostensibly now unloaded) and shoot the bullet
that hit him, which traveled through his right shoulder and lodged near his
spine, where it remains to this day.
Among the most poignant testimony Mr. Jones offered was the
detrimental effect the injury has had on his basketball game, of which he was
once extremely proud. “I tried to see if I had my game back, but it’s not the
same,” he told Mr. Cochran, who probably wished he hadn’t elicited the answer.
“I can play, but I’m not as fast as I was. I can’t use my right hand like I
“I saw a fire,” Mr. Jones said, referring to the muzzle fire
from Mr. Barrow’s weapon. “I dropped.” He added that he wasn’t able to tell
from the ground where he lay whether Mr. Combs fired his gun or not.
On cross examination, Mr. Cochran did little to undermine
Mr. Jones’ testimony, even as he elicited the information that the victim’s
Rolodex wasn’t as well organized as, say, Blaine Trump’s. Mr. Jones was unable
to come up with a last name for Chutney, one of the women he accompanied to
Club New York that night, even though he described her as his “home girl.”
He also wasn’t aware of the line of work of a friend with
whom he’d attended the club that evening, and whom he’d said he’d known since
he was a toddler. “I don’t get into his business,” Mr. Jones explained. “I
don’t know what he do, and I don’t want to know.”
Mr. Cochran later brought
up a $700 million lawsuit the victim had filed against Mr. Combs and his record
label. Mr. Jones seemed to know little if anything about the specifics of the
suit, admitting that he’d barely read it. Coming from a different witness, his
claim might have seemed far-fetched, but from Mr. Jones-who appears more
attuned to life’s big picture than the fine print-it seemed perfectly in
Asked by Mr. Cochan if he’d told someone he was filing the
suit to “have a payday,” Mr. Jones denied it, saying he wouldn’t want to “bring
a black man down. If I had money to pay this $17,000 insurance, to pay this
hospital suit, I’d drop the suit tomorrow.”
Mr. Cochran jumped all over his answer, seeing an
opportunity to tarnish the victim’s credibility. “So you’d take $17,000 on the
$700 million lawsuit?” he demanded.
“No,” Mr. Jones answered uncertainly. One suspects the jury
won’t hold his answer against him. In a world of celebrity lawyers, Lincoln
Navigators and rap moguls, $700 million seems in the right ballpark.
-with Madeline Blot
Follow Ralph Gardner via RSS.