The Irv Gotti Trial: Day Two

the inc.jpgEvidence will show that Irv Gotti owns at least one very nice suit

Day two of the money laundering trial of Murder Inc. label bosses Irv and Chris Lorenzo wasn't the blockbuster legal spectacle that yesterday was. There weren't any epically flamboyant opening arguments or headline-grabbing bombs dropped. The courtroom was full, but nobody was stuck outside. Ashanti wasn't there, though Ja Rule was, along with Damon Dash and (I think) 7 Aurelius. I doubt it'll make the cover of tomorrow's Daily News. But it remained a fascinating legal spectacle, a weird peek into the labyrinthene links between the rap world and the criminal world.

The day was almost entirely dedicated to the testimony of Donnell Nichols, a former Murder Inc. employee, the guy that defense lawyers had called "practically homeless" and "a pathological liar" in the opening statements. Nichols was a heavyset, well-spoken guy in a khaki shirt and chinos; he claimed to be in his early 30s but looked easily ten years older than that. Nichols worked for Murder Inc. for about six months in 2000, supposedly starting as an assistant director of marketing and later became Chris Gotti's assistant, though the prosecution would dispute this claim. He testified that he'd seen the Queens drug lord Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff coming to the Murder Inc. offices and to the set of Crime Partners, the movie he'd been making at the time. According to Nicols, Supreme would bring large amounts of cash into the Murder Inc. offices, bound up in rubber bands, in shoeboxes, and that Chris Gotti would tell his accountant to cut checks to Supreme's film company Picture Perfect after getting the cash. Nichols also mentioned seeing an associate of Supreme's dropping money off at the offices, and he said that several members of McGriff's Supreme Team gang had jobs with the label. And he testified that Supreme would take trips around the country with Chris Gotti, trips that Murder Inc. parent company Def Jam paid for. He said that he'd given Supreme a two-way pager that Def Jam had bought, and he said that he'd delivered cash from Chris's set to Supreme's movie shoot. The defense objected when the prosecution asked Nichols whether he'd heard Ja Rule mention Supreme in lyrics. Nichols also claimed that Supreme was getting money from Ruff Ryders as well, but the defense said that his claim was speculative. Prosecutor Carolyn Pokorny questioned Nichols instead of Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Haran, who'd done all the talking the day before. Pokorny, like Haran, seemed a little overmatched by the older and slicker defense team; she simply asked Nichols her questions and got out of the way.

Chris's lawyer Gerald Shargel cross-examined Nichols brutally for hours. Shargel was in full attack-dog mode for the entire day, and he'd clearly devoted substantial resources to investigating just about every facet of Nichols's life, doing everything he could to prove Nichols a liar. He brought up the circumstances of Nichols's discharge from the Navy, making sure to note that an "honorable discharge" is not the same as a "discharge under honorable circumstances." (Nichols was discharged after refusing to take an anthrax vaccine.) He disputed Nichols' claim that a manager had stolen an idea he'd had when working for Geico along with the $25,000 bonus that came with having an idea like that, claiming that Geico had never had a program that promised bonus money for ideas. (Nichols countered that the military sales division was different from the rest of Geico.) Nichols wasn't entirely able to explain a bad check he'd written for office-space rent for a non-profit agency he'd founded in Atlanta; he simply said that he ended up paying the rent later by credit card. Nichols claimed that his nonprofit had helped develop security initiatives for synagogues and churches, as well as local police, but Shargel nailed him for not being able to name any synagogues or police officers in Cobb County, GA. Shargel also claimed that Nichols had been asked to leave a volunteer position at a church after a reverend saw him looking at internet porn, a claim that Nichols denied. He also said that Nichols had once been told he couldn't sleep in a Greyhound bus terminal, implying that Nichols had been homeless, though Nichols said that he'd been trying to get from Florida to New York after September 11. It kept going on like this: Shargel took Nichols to task for every time he exaggerated on a job application or allowed factual inaccuracies on his company's website to stand. It was hard not to feel bad for Nichols; the guy seemed to have had no idea what he was getting himself into when he agreed to testify, and a lot of what Shargel was saying seemed to be gratuitous character assassination.

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But some of Shargel's cross-examination stuck. Nichols had testified in front of a grand jury that Supreme had brought "probably $70,000 or more" in small denominations to the Murder Inc. offices in a shoebox, and Shargel demonstrated with fake cash and a shoebox that there was no way an amount of money like that would fit. Shargel also mentioned Glen Williams, a man who Nichols had hired to work at Murder Inc. even though he had no authority to do so, claiming that Williams had punched Nichols once he'd been working there for a few weeks and found out he hand't really been fired and wouldn't be getting paid. Nichols allowed that he'd gotten into a physical altercation with Williams, but he said that it didn't have anything to do with his hiring. And most of all, Shargel disputed Nichols' claim that Chris Lorenzo had made Nichols his assistant and given him a key to his safe after only working at Murder Inc. for a month or so. Shargel kept referring to Nichols as an intern and implied that if Nichols would lie to get a job he'd be capable of lying to get back at his former boss for firing him. For his part, Nichols claimed to have left, feeling unsafe after witnessing a nightclub shooting one night when he went out partying with the Lorenzos and Ja Rule. Nichols wasn't as easy to discredit as Phillip Banks had been the day before, but Shargel hammered him so hard for so long that he could well have planted some reasonable doubt in the jurors' minds. He certainly made me believe that Nichols could've been lying.

The most interesting parts of the trial didn't happen in front of the jury; they happened when the judge asked them to leave and then listened to the prosecution and defense argue over whether the 50 Cent shooting was fair game. Haran said that a Supreme associate named Son had shot 50 nine times in 2000, an event that now has a movie based around it. Haran claimed that the police had intercepted a flurry of text-messages between Supreme and Irv Gotti that night, with Gotti expressing gratitude and happiness about the shooting, and he said that the evidence would help to establish motive, since the Crime Partners money-laundering scam started about five months after the shooting. Shargel responded that the evidence was irrelevant and that it would drag the trial out days longer: "Do you think that since someone sang some lyrics, [the Lorenzos] wanted this man shot? This is ridiculous!" It looked like the judge agreed to allow the evidence, but it was hard to hear from where I was sitting.

At the end of the day, the judge told the jury that the trial would start again on Monday and extend until maybe the end of the week of the 29th. It'll be an interesting couple of weeks.

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