Pity the poor juror who votes to convict Sean (Puffy) Combs. To do so would be, well, un-American. At least that’s what Benjamin Brafman, the rap mogul’s combative lawyer, seemed to be suggesting in closing arguments on March 12, as he tried to paper over some of the more troubling aspects of Mr. Combs’ defense through sheer tour de force of personality–his own as much as that of the mogul known as Puff Daddy.
If Mr. Combs’ lead lawyer hadn’t completely justified his hourly rate in the trial’s previous six weeks (one of the case’s great mysteries is how much lawyers, private eyes, personal security, public relations and daily lunch sent down by Citarella is setting Puffy back), he more than made up for it during the spectacle’s waning hours.
Calling his client “one of the most successful African-Americans in the history of America,” Mr. Brafman put on a spirited performance that kept the jury captivated, even if he didn’t display his colleague Johnnie Cochran’s consummate ability to turn his target audience into modeling clay. In fact, in what may be a first in American jurisprudence, and in tacit acknowledgment of what we’ve known all along–that this trial is a made-for-TV movie yearning to be free–Mr. Brafman, by way of introduction, apologized to the jury for not being Mr. Cochran, whom he called “the world’s most famous lawyer.”
“Mask your disappointment,” he implored the jury, perhaps not entirely in jest, before launching into his case.
Which isn’t to say Mr. Brafman is chopped liver. By the time he’d finished his summation three and a half hours later, the heads of the jurors–and just about everybody else in the courtroom–were spinning before exploding, like those “fembots” in Austin Powers when the British secret agent turned his mojo on them.
To counteract Mr. Brafman’s Monday-morning spell, Matthew Bogdanos, the assistant district attorney, started his presentation the following morning without uttering a word. Rather, he flipped the switch on a tape recorder, and the cavernous courtroom filled with the sounds of 911 calls from hysterical club patrons.
“Lest any of us forget why we’re here,” he began, “this is not the Puff Daddy trial or the Jennifer Lopez trial. It’s about three people who got shot in a club a little over a year ago.”
The entire gist of Mr. Bogdanos’ summation seemed to be to strike a contrast between the hard facts on which he claimed to rely and the fiction–the “spin,” as he put it more than once–on which the defense’s summation rested. The jurors seemed to be listening. Many of them scribbled in their notebooks; few, if any, had done so during Mr. Brafman’s summation, though they had remained attentive throughout.
Mr. Bodganos also seemed intent on puncturing the Horatio Alger myth of Puff Daddy, branding Mr. Combs’ star turn on the witness stand “absurd” and virtually snickering at Mr. Brafman’s argument that someone of his client’s stature would never be foolish enough to pull a gun in a crowded nightclub with hundreds of witnesses. “Few things that criminals do make sense,” Mr. Bogdanos said. “If you searched for logic, there wouldn’t be criminal behavior.” Far more commanding than he’d been when he cross-examined Puffy, he now seemed to take any opportunity to call him a liar.
But Mr. Brafman did his best to turn the spotlight off Puffy–no small chore–and onto the prosecution’s witnesses. From Mr. Brafman’s point of view, those who testified against his client were an untrustworthy bunch of pimps and liars and deadbeat dads–his words, not mine–while the good, churchgoing folk who took the witness stand on behalf of the defense were solid Marines and working single moms. The mark of a brilliant lawyer must be to spin an utterly compelling vision of your client’s innocence and then persuade the jury to inhabit it with you, inconsistencies be damned.
A good example of Mr. Brafman’s exertions in that regard came when he was discussing the testimony of Christopher Chambers, an auto mechanic who testified on Puffy’s behalf. Were there a Madame Tussaud’s devoted to lousy witnesses, Mr. Chambers might occupy a place of pride in the lobby.
Mr. Chambers testified that he remembered virtually nothing about the early-morning hours of Dec. 27, 1999, when an altercation broke out at Club New York that left three people wounded. Prosecutors alleged that Mr. Combs’ protégé, the rap artist Jamal (Shyne) Barrow, pulled out a gun and started shooting. Mr. Barrow is charged with attempted murder, Mr. Combs and bodyguard Anthony (Wolf) Jones with gun possession and bribery.
Mr. Chambers had stated unequivocally that Puffy himself wasn’t packing heat, as several other witnesses had testified, but that he’d seen virtually nothing else that happened at the club that night. While some might attribute Mr. Chambers’ highly selective powers of observation either to some early childhood injury or the possibility that the defense got to him–telephone records entered into evidence by the prosecution in the trial’s waning hours show a flurry of brief phone calls from Mr. Combs to potential witnesses in the days following the incident–Mr. Brafman had a surprisingly simple explanation for Mr. Chambers’ tunnel vision. He was star-struck by the sight of the great man and his lady friend, Ms. Lopez, boogieing in the club’s V.I.P. lounge.
But more interesting than the lawyer’s explanation was his lead-in, where he managed to invoke the names of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Brafman explained that he’ll always remember where he was when he learned of the two leaders’ assassinations. He recalled precisely what the little boy who broke the news to him of J.F.K.’s murder was wearing (Mr. Brafman’s ability to refresh the jury’s memory about witnesses they heard testify over a month earlier by describing their clothing was so amazing, one sometimes wondered whether his true calling might not be in the garment industry), and then shared the information that he was sitting in future Congressman Steven Solarz’s Brooklyn College law class when the announcement of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination occurred.
One wondered what all this had to do with Puffy, until the lawyer told us that he wasn’t trying to equate his client with those statesmen–at least not overtly. He was just making the point that spotting a celebrity such as Mr. Combs in a crowded nightclub is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren about.
“If you are a person of fame, people notice you because it’s exciting, it’s momentous,” Mr. Brafman said by way of rationalizing Mr. Chambers’ reliability as a witness. “If [Puffy] comes to court in a sweater rather than a suit, it’s on the front page of the Post . They don’t care what I wear. It’s the focus.” It was difficult to tell whether the argument, colorful as it was, impressed the seven black and five white, seemingly working-class members of the jury.
Predictably, Mr. Brafman wasn’t as charitable towards Julius Jones, a club patron and prosecution witness who got shot in the shoulder–the bullet coming to rest near his spinal chord, where it remains to this day–and who suffered from some of the same amnesia that seemed to afflict Mr. Chambers.
Mr. Jones, who is suing Mr. Combs for $700 million, couldn’t remember the last name of his “homegirl” Chutney, nor what a friend of his, whom he’d known since they were small children and who’d also visited Club New York that night, did to support himself.
“He never worked,” Mr. Brafman growled of Mr. Jones, who had a seasonal job with the Parks Department, and whom he portrayed as a dope-smoking malt-liquor aficionado and good-for-nothing, as opposed to Mr. Combs, “an extraordinary young man,” a one-man economic miracle whose far-flung enterprises employ 600 people. “You’re supposed to rely on this man to end somebody’s life?” Mr. Brafman snarled of Mr. Jones.
The lawyer was similarly sympathetic towards Wardell Fenderson, Puffy’s weekend driver, who testified to several damning things, among them that he saw his boss accessorize with a pistol in the back seat of his Lincoln Navigator before joining Ms. Lopez for the short walk to Club New York from his recording studio. Mr. Fenderson also claimed that Mr. Combs tried to bribe him to take the rap for the gun the police found when they stopped the S.U.V. after it ran a series of red lights while fleeing up Eighth Avenue.
“You have to look at who the person is saying it,” Mr. Brafman instructed the attentive jury. “What do you know about Wardell Fenderson? What type of person abandons, for all practical purposes, the welfare of his own child?” Mr. Fenderson had confessed to be in arrears $70,000 in child support at one point. “I submit to you, someone’s who’s pretty much worthless. Every animal form cares for their own young, except for the occasional human species.”
Returning to his theme of Puff Daddy as sugar daddy, Mr. Brafman explained away one of the trial’s most damning bits of evidence: a phone call Mr. Combs made to Mr. Fenderson’s home that the driver preserved on tape–and that sounded very much like a bribe attempt–in which the rap mogul offered to make Mr. Fenderson and his family “comfortable.”
According to Mr. Brafman, Puffy was simply reaching out in the spirit of charity. He’d heard his employee had lost his day job, as the driver for an investment banker who apparently wasn’t charmed by Mr. Fenderson’s sudden appearance in the tabloids. What the prosecution portrayed as a bribe was one more of Puffy’s good works; another example, if more were needed, of his appealing humanity.
Of the flurry of suspicious phone calls Mr. Combs made to the homes of witnesses, and that Mr. Brafman warned the jury Mr. Bogdanos would use against his client when his turn came for summation. And he did, to dramatic effect. Mr. Brafman said that Puffy was merely trying to “reach out and try to find witnesses and arrange for their transportation”–a statement scorned by Mr. Bogdanos, who said, “he’s got personal assistants to do everything .”
Again, Mr. Brafman wasn’t nearly as understanding towards wounded prosecution witnesses. He paid lip service to their injuries, but not much. “I’m not suggesting she’s a bad person,” he said of Natania Reuben, before doing just that. Ms. Reuben is a clubgoer who was shot in the face. She testified not only that she saw Mr. Combs with a gun, but that she saw him fire it. She’s suing him for $150 million. “Just because you are injured does not give you the right to perpetrate a fraud against my client,” Mr. Brafman argued.
Indeed, the lawsuits were the narrative thread connecting the closing argument of Mr. Combs’ attorney with those of the lawyers for Mr. Barrow and Mr. Jones, who had made their summations earlier in the day.
“Bad people came into this courtroom and made false accusations against Sean Combs in order to get rich,” Mr. Brafman bellowed.
Some of the summations were just good fun, however. In a nod to Mr. Cochran, who hugged Mr. Brafman and knocked heads with him when he finished his performance, the attorney even attempted one of the maestro’s trademark rhyming arguments for acquittal. “If it doesn’t make sense,” he instructed the jury, “you’ve got to find for the defense.”
However, the caliber of the lawyering was sufficiently high that Mr. Brafman’s rhyme ranked only as the day’s second-best. First prize went to Michael Bachner, Anthony (Wolf) Jones’ attorney. Arguing that his client couldn’t possibly be guilty of possessing the gun that was found by the cops under the seat in the Navigator where Wolf was riding as it sped away from Club New York, Mr. Bachner explained that if Mr. Jones–loyal retainer that he is–had had a gun at the Club, he’d have used it in his boss’ defense when he discovered him in danger. (How’s that for a character reference?) To make his point to the jury, Mr. Bachner minted this ditty: “If Tony had no gun in the bar, Tony had no gun in the car.”
But Mr. Bogdanos had the last word when it came to rhymes. Turning to the 12 people who will decide whether Puffy sees his next CD go platinum in prison, he said, “Don’t let them substitute their rhymes for your reason.”