Daddy Under the Gun

Publicly, Rap Mogul Won’t Beg; Quietly, He Pleads

I was like, "What are you all doing? What's going on?" They said, "We have a gun in the car." I said, "It's not my gun. Why are you putting the handcuffs on me?"
—Sean "Puffy" Combs, recalling his December 1999 arrest

Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau—dubbed the "playa-hatin' " prosecutor by rappers who have run afoul of the law—has rejected a request for a plea bargain from hip hop star Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs. Law enforcement and courtroom sources tell the Voice that Morgenthau is confident he can put "smoking guns" in Combs's possession on the night of the controversial Club New York shooting.

Combs, his protégé, Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, and bodyguard Anthony "Wolf" Jones go on trial on January 8 in state supreme court in Manhattan in connection with the shooting, which erupted in the West 44th Street nightclub on December 27, 1999 after a man insulted Combs and flung money in his face. Barrow, 21, allegedly pulled a gun and opened fire, hitting three people. He has been indicted on an attempted-murder charge. Combs, 31, fled with girlfriend, Latina megastar Jennifer Lopez, and Jones in a Lincoln Navigator driven by Wardel Fenderson. Fenderson, who is cooperating with Morgenthau's office, claims that after the shooting, Combs and Jones tried to entice him into accepting responsibility for a gun allegedly thrown from the sports utility vehicle. Lopez was not charged. Combs and Jones each were charged with criminal possession of a gun. If convicted, Combs faces 15 years to life in prison.

Courtroom insiders claim that Combs's lawyers, Johnnie Cochran and Benjamin Brafman, had proposed that Combs plead to a misdemeanor, "make substantial financial restitution," and be sentenced to "meaningful community service." But under Morgenthau, no one—especially rappers—gets away clean. The city's longest-reigning D.A., the man who prosecuted gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur reportedly frowned on any deal that does not involve jail time. Morgenthau's offer: a guilty plea to a misdemeanor gun charge in return for a stint in jail, the Associated Press reported. Says spokeswoman Barbara Thompson: "We never discuss pleas." Through a publicist—who spoke on condition of anonymity—Cochran, former O.J. Simpson "Dream Team" lead attorney, would neither confirm nor deny that he had solicited a plea. Brafman, a well-known lawyer whose past clients include mobster Sammy "The Bull" Gravano and nightclub owner Peter Gatien, was unavailable for comment, a secretary said.

A veteran cop, who has worked with the NYPD's anti-gang enforcement unit, says, "Morgenthau wants Puff Daddy," adding that since the sensational Shakur rape trial the attention-grabbing Morgenthau seems eager to send an A-list celebrity like Combs to prison. "My advice to Mr. Combs is, 'Daddy get your gun,' cause you're gonna have to shoot your way outta this one." Trial attorney Carl W. Thomas, whose clients have included Naughty by Nature, Heltah Skeltah, the Cocoa Brovaz, and Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah, says he is not surprised by Morgenthau's coldly indifferent approach to the Combs case. Thomas, who has negotiated several plea bargains for rappers, maintains that Morgenthau's assistants—who regularly hear spiels from attorneys for celebrity suspects—are unforgiving.

Thomas remembers getting a frantic call one day from a prominent black activist who asked him to petition Morgenthau's office to cut Ghostface Killah some slack on an unspecified offense. "They were very nice and accommodating, but they made it clear to me that they had dealt with celebrities like Ghostface Killah in the past and that my client was going to jail, even for a short while," Thomas says. "They weren't bluffing." One defense attorney, who asked not to be identified, says Morgenthau's prosecutors are a stoic bunch. "If an attorney approaches them with a ridiculous offer, they do not listen," he elaborates. "This attorney may want his client to plead guilty, but he does not want him to go to jail."

"Rappers are not the roughest and toughest guys in the 'hood,' " says attorney Carl Thomas. "They wear bulletproof vests or carry brass knuckles, baseball bats, and guns because they are scared."

The perception among some rappers is that Morgenthau—without trying to understand that they themselves are often the victims of crimes— has singled them out for persecution. Since the gangland-style executions of Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., many rappers are more interested in stayin' alive than keepin' it real. For some, survival often comes down to breaking the law. Targeted primarily by hoodfellas who prey on the ghettofabulous, rappers are—as The Source magazine first reported in 1998—arming themselves with Glock 9mms, .357 and .380 Magnum pistols, and donning bulletproof vests while touring or visiting America's inner cities. Some have even hired reputed gangbangers or "stompin' committees" to protect them from the scourge of what East Coast street thugs call "MC jackin' ."

But the rappers' resolve to protect their rights has met with dire consequences, the Source investigation revealed. Law enforcement agencies are unsympathetic to the rappers in the wake of years of mutual contempt, emblazoned in lyrics such as N.W.A.'s "Fuck the Police," Tupac's "Drop a Cop," KRS-One's "Black Cop," Ice-T's "Cop Killer," and Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Deep Cover." Cops, aware of the illegal guns many rappers carry, consistently target them for stop-and-frisk searches. Many rappers have been arrested for illegal possession of weapons and for wearing body armor.

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