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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.”
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.
And some of hip hop’s biggest stars have gone to jail: On June 12, 1997, The Source reported, police pulled over two $60,000 black Lexus cruisers for tailgating and speeding along 125th Street in Harlem. Among the passengers were Naughty By Nature’s Treach and Vinnie. Treach had a 9mm semiautomatic pistol and was wearing a body vest. Vinnie also was found with a 9mm pistol. Both were charged with second-degree possession of a weapon. They later pled guilty to fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a misdemeanor. Each was sentenced to an undisclosed fine and probation.
On December 10, 1997, Ghostface Killah and two associates, Hezeciah Hunter and Jason Hunt, were busted on gun charges in Harlem. Police retrieved a .357 Magnum, fully loaded with hollow-point bullets, from a nook behind the glove compartment of a rented Dodge. They were charged with third-degree criminal possession of a weapon. In addition, Killah was charged with wearing a body vest. (As the Voice went to press, the Manhattan D.A. had not ascertained the disposition of the case.) In March 1998, he pled guilty in an unrelated robbery case. He was sentenced to six months in jail.
“Some of these rappers carry guns around for defensive—not for offensive—purposes,” Thomas told The Source. “A lot of young people in the neighborhoods where the rappers come from are very jealous of the cars they drive, their money, and the women who show them favor because they are famous.” Thomas pointed out that some rappers who “go about their business strapped” can’t get gun permits because of their criminal pasts and wind up toting illegal weapons to thwart robbery and carjacking attempts. “If they were alive today Tupac and Biggie would attest to the numerous death threats they received,” he argued.
In many instances, the threats come from obsessed fans or disgruntled concert promoters. “Ghostface Killah told me that during concerts, when he and members of his group bend down to rap to or shake hands with individuals, petty gangsters would leap from the crowd and snatch gold chains from off their necks or slash them,” Thomas said. The attorney recalled that in 1994, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was shot in the stomach during an argument in Brooklyn over rap music. “They feel this threat from unknown faces and they don’t know when and where it would become a reality,” he asserted. “Rappers are not the roughest and toughest guys in the ‘hood; they wear bulletproof vests or carry brass knuckles, baseball bats, and guns because they are scared.”
But rap critics like Richard Harvey say it is the ghetto griots who court trouble. He sees it in their ever-changing behavior and music. “In the mid ’80s and early ’90s, there was variety in hip hop, including political artists at the forefront like Public Enemy and X-Clan,” Harvey explains. “Gangsters were there, but in the background. Now gangsters are in the foreground and advertise black-on-black crime, and they are well paid for it. The music is no longer an expression of angst and rage at the system or aspirations for a better way of life.
“In fact, the main message of [best-selling] white-owned Hot 97-style hip hop [artists] like M.O.P., Capone & Noriega, the Lox, Mob Deep, Shyne, and Memphis Bleek is, ‘We are proud and dangerous criminals who dominate and exploit our own neighborhoods.’ These artists are [chart toppers] because they provide the advertising for the prison-industrial complex. White racists say, ‘Thank you!’ ‘Fuck up your own neighborhoods!’ ‘Act like criminals and we’ll lock you up.’ ”
As far as D.A. Morgenthau is concerned, there is no question that Sean “Puffy” Combs was acting like a criminal when he waved a gun on the night of the Club New York shooting. But in court papers, his attorneys, Cochran and Brafman, argued that the grand jury did not indict Combs on any gun charges. This contention baffled lead prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos.
“Frankly, this argument has me rather confused,” Bogdanos says in a May 9 letter to Brafman, addressing the defense attorney’s “misplaced concerns about the nature of the gun charges against” Combs. “It has always been alleged that your client possessed and brandished a gun in the club,” Bogdanos adds. “This position was set forth in the felony complaint. It was repeated unchanged at Criminal Court arraignment, and substantial evidence supporting this position was presented to the grand jury. Your client was thereafter indicted for possessing two separate guns (what you and I have been calling the gun out of the window and the gun in the car). These charges comprise your client’s conduct before, during, and after the [shooting]. This position was again repeated at [a] hearing and yet again in [subsequent documents].”
Combs’s attorneys, Bogdanos suggests, erroneously assumed that prosecutors were backing off pursuing gun charges against the rapper. Bogdanos made Morgenthau’s position clear. “Given the remarkably consistent and unchanging position on your client’s criminal conduct,” he writes, “you can understand my confusion when you claim that there is a change in the [prosecution’s] allegations. Quite simply, and notwithstanding your repeated averments that there are witnesses who told the grand jury that your client did not have a gun inside the club (and apart from whether this belief is accurate), grand jurors, like petit jurors, are perfectly at liberty to accept truthful and accurate testimony and to disregard patently false or demonstrably inaccurate testimony.”
Barring a last-minute plea bargain, Bogdanos will maintain in court that Combs had guns with him the night he went to Club New York. In the narrative of events he has laid out, Bogdanos claims that shortly before 3 a.m. on December 27, police officers Paul Franco and John Murtagh “heard three or four gunshots” which had been fired inside the trendy nightspot. After calling for backup, Officer William Meyer and Sergeant Jack Konstantinidis sped to the corner of 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue and set up a roadblock.
Meyer, according to Bogdanos, “watched as a Lincoln Navigator with darkly tinted windows” sped away from the nightclub, dodging the roadblock by driving onto the sidewalk. As the SUV “turned right onto Eighth Avenue, running every red light,” someone tossed a 9-mm handgun out of a passenger-side window. The vehicle was cut off by a patrol car at 54th Street and Eighth Avenue. Cops, Bogdanos says, “ordered the driver and passengers to exit the vehicle one at a time and in the following order: Wardel Fenderson (driver), Jennifer Lopez (rear seat behind driver), Sean Combs (rear seat behind passenger), and Anthony Jones (front seat passenger).” While other officers searched the SUV, the prosecutor claims, Meyer observed the handle of a 9-mm automatic “in plain view sticking out from under the front passenger seat.”
Brafman insisted in an interview with AP that Combs “had nothing whatsoever to do with the shooting in Club New York.” How is it, Brafman and Cochran argue in court papers, that Sergeant Konstantinidis, who had tailed the Lincoln Navigator from the time it left the club, did not report seeing a gun being ditched? The lawyers point out that “a bizarre series of events” led to the discovery of another gun, tied to Combs, two days after the incident. “This ‘second’ weapon is not connected to any of the defendants in this case through forensic evidence, fingerprints, or any other scientific test, nor has any witness been able specifically to identify this particular weapon as ever having been in the actual . . . possession of any of the defendants in this case.”
Brafman and Cochran have challenged the prosecution’s claim that a “street person” saw a “male black” hand throw the gun from the rear passenger seat of the Lincoln Navigator—the seat allegedly occupied by Combs. This “street person” later gave the gun to a friend. “That friend is apparently a career informant who was working with a task force of federal and city agents involved in the investigation of organized crime,” the attorneys explain. “Subsequently, this professional informant, in turn, gave the weapon to Detective Andrew Vargas, who lists his law enforcement address [as] 26 Federal Plaza—the building in which the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is located.”
The buzz in hip hop is that the debonair, soft-spoken “Puff Daddy” can’t handle a long prison term. So should the multi-millionaire gamble with Manhattan’s notorious hanging jurors or should he punk out? Should he cut a deal? Just for the sake of his oldest sons Justin, 6, and Quincy, 8, who he says can’t bear to see him in handcuffs? “I would never take a plea,” Combs told AP in an interview last month with Brafman at his side. “Never take a plea.” Publicly, he won’t beg; quietly, he pleads.