The Irv Gotti Trial: Day One





Irv Gotti looking foxy (courtesy The Smoking Gun)

So the answer to today’s big question is: no. No, the prosecution did not make mention of 50 Cent’s now-legendary 2002 shooting in the opening arguments of Irv and Chris Lorenzo’s money-laundering trial. The Lorenzos are, of course, better known as Irv and Chris Gotti, the CEO and president of Murder Inc. Records, label-bosses of Ja Rule and Ashanti (both of whom were in the courtroom, fresh from Amber Ridinger’s bat mitzvah). (I have no idea if Black Child and Cadillac Tah were there. Would you recognize Black Child and Cadillac Tah if you saw them?) The Lorenzos are accused of laundering dirty money for Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, a well-known Queens drug-ring leader. According to the prosecution, Supreme acted as the Lorenzos’ benefactor early in their career and provided them with protection. In exchange, the prosecution alleges that the Lorenzos gave Supreme the money to buy the Donald Goines book rights for his direct-to-video movie Crime Partners, convinced a number of rap names to donate songs for the movie’s soundtrack, and then convinced Def Jam to buy the soundtrack album from Supreme for $1 million. Supreme is also widely rumored to have ordered the shooting of the Lorenzos’ longtime rap rival 50 Cent, almost certainly the most important rap-world event to take place this century. Judge Edward Korman had denied the prosecutors’ request to mention 50’s shooting during the trial’s opening argument today, and 50 was only mentioned, weirdly, as an artist who had contributed material to one of Supreme’s soundtracks.

The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Haran made plenty of other claims during the opening arguments. I missed the beginning of Haran’s arguments; the courtroom was so full that not even reporters could get in at first. But I got in in time to hear Haran paint a picture of Supreme as a dangerous thug who had come up with the ridiculous alter-ego of Ricky Coleman, music industry guy. Haran said that Supreme didn’t know what he was doing, that he made Crime Partners before he even owned the rights to the book, that Irv and Chris wrote him a check without even setting up a fake loan agreement, and that the Lorenzos let Supreme fly around the country (under his Coleman identity) with their company credit card to party for six months before starting a prison bid. According to Haran, the Lorenzos “created the appearance of legitimacy” for Supreme. Haran is a great deal younger than either of the Lorenzos’ lawyers; he’s a soft-spoken guy who gives the impression of being not quite certain what he’s getting himself into but deeply offended by the defendants’ alleged crimes.

The Lorenzos’ lawyers are, of course, much slicker. Gerald Lefcourt, Irv’s attorney, is a weathered-looking middle-aged guy with a loud, comically exaggerated voice. In his opening argument, he said that the calse was about a clash between “despicable people” and the “American Dream success story” of Irv Gotti. Lefcourt spun Irv’s bio into a grand, sweeping story: youngest of eight kids, parents who bought him “DJ tables,” a childhood spent rocking Jamaica Park, Run-DMC visiting the Lorenzo family basement to hear Irv’s beats, Irv becoming an A&R at TVT and then Def Jam, signing Jay-Z and DMX and Ja Rule and making the company hundreds of millions, Def Jam giving Irv his own label to run. He assured the jury that the music Gotti had released was “not gangsta rap music” but “the kind of music that would cross over to all.” He claimed that Crime Partners had been Supreme’s second attempt to turn a Donald Goines novel into the film, that the film was a legitimate enterprise that still sold today. He implied that the Crime Partners soundtrack wasn’t a favor to Supreme, that it could’ve been a huge success if the government hadn’t prevented it from being released. Lefcourt also made sure to discredit the prosecutors’ witnesses before they even appeared, saying that one was “one of the great credit card scam artists of all time” and another was a “practically homeless” “pathological liar” who had been taken into the Murder Inc. offices. Lefcourt finished up by claiming that Supreme was “a taker, not a giver,” that his money could never get clean in the first place because he never filed taxes.

Chris Gotti has his own lawyer, a tall, bald, bearded guy named Gerald Shargel with a much more bullish style that Lefcourt. Shargel called the prosecution’s case “a pathetic attempt to prove guilt by association.” He claimed that police had searched Chris’s office in 2003, found thousands of dollars in cash, and immediately assumed to to be dirty money. He said that Supreme’s connection to the rap word hadn’t started with the Lorenzos, that he’d long been a romanticized figure, mentioned prominently in lyrics before Murder Inc. “The image of the street is what sells records,” said Shargel, claiming that the Gottis simply used Supreme as “a prop … for the purposes of selling records.” He mentioned that Murder Inc.’s biggest hits were love songs, that their hard image was “a cartoon.” And he depicted Chris as a former UPS loader and construction worker with a gambling addiction who had gone along for the ride when his brother’s star started to rise, saying that Chris was a salaried employee of Murder Inc. who didn’t make the decisions. Shargel closed his argument in a classic courtroom-showmanship touch, referring to Lefcourt’s Powerpoint presentation and saying that he had his own chart, taking out a blank white posterboard and writing “Says Who?” on it. I love stuff like that.

If you’ve never seen a high-priced lawyer in action, it’s truly a dazzling sight to behold. The two Geralds extraordinarily fun to watch, gradually raising their intensity and turning up their indignance to create little mini-crescendoes in their arguments. After hearing Irv’s life story as told by Lefcourt, I liked Irv Gotti more than I had since the first time I heard the “What’s My Name?” beat. These guys are pros. All the lawyers, of course, are playing roles. Haran was the unslick but honest young crusader taking on the phalynx of slickster simply because he was appalled at the crimes he was prosecuting, while Lefcourt and Shargel are the weary old guns sighingly condescending to tear apart the pathetic arguments of this unrigorous young guppy. All three will probably keep playing the same roles for the duration of the trial; I’m curious to see how they butt up against each other. As for the Lorenzos, they sat stone-faced for the entire day, only smiling when one of their lawyers said something particularly funny.

When Haran began calling witnesses, he seemed chiefly concerned with making sure everyone realized that Supreme was a bad person, bringing up a detective who had found his fingerprints in a Baltimore stash house and an amusingly grizzled unlicensed Baltimore cabdriver who claimed to have driven Supreme and his associates between Baltimore and New York a number of times, at one point spotting drugs in their bags. Shargel grilled the cabdriver on Manhattan geography, and the driver couldn’t answer simple questions. Shargel then made a big deal out of the driver’s being granted immunity from drugrunning charges in exchange for testimony, finally getting him to say that the prosecutors had helped him refresh his memory.

The final witness of the day was Phillip Banks, a former member of Supreme’s gang. Banks is a truly terrifying figure, an enormous guy wearing jail coveralls who stared hard into the middle distance and grunted monosyllabic answers. Slowly, Haran pulled details from him: he’d spent most of his adult life in prison, he’d shot a pair of security guards who had then refused to testify against him, he’d attempted, on Supreme’s orders, to murder a woman pregnant with Supreme’s kid because she wouldn’t get an abortion: really fucked-up stuff. He also claimed that he’d given Irv Gotti thousands of dollars early in his career on Supreme’s orders, that he wasn’t happy about giving Irv the money, that he only knew Irv as “a music dude” and didn’t care about him beyond that. He described other members of Supreme’s gang (one of whom, he said, murdered a kid for bumping into Supreme at a club) and said that these guys all had worked with Murder Inc. later. He also said that Chris Gotti had given him thousands of dollars’ worth of clothes and bailed him out of jail once. In cross-examination, Lefcourt mentioned Banks’s history of perjury, getting him to say that he would lie to get out of prison. From where I was sitting, the prosecution’s case looked weak: neither the driver nor Banks seemed to be a particularly witness. But the trial is young.

And it was fun, seeing all this stuff play out right in front of me, seeing Ashanti looking all sulky on the bench and Ja happily dispensing quotes about the “war on hip-hop” to eager journalists and prosecuters riding the elevator with the Gottis’ entourages and the throngs of press people. At lunchtime, Irv and Ja strode purposefully across the street to a diner, surrounded by reporters and cameras. Ashanti ducked out a few minutes later, running with a jacket over her head and assistant trailing behind her. And yes: it is indescribably weird watching courtroom-drama cliches in person.