It’s not over yet. Everyone was hoping it would be, but no, closing arguments took up the whole day. The judge will instruct the jury on the law tomorrow, and it seems pretty likely that we’ll get a verdict by the end of the day. I’ve never even been to a trial before this, but the other reporters are telling me that it seems like a pretty open-and-shut case. Still, a pretty exciting day, largely because of the people watching at the courthouse: Dame Dash, Ja Rule, Ashanti, 7 Aurelius. One of the other reporters pointed out a poker player named Phil Ivey. I took a piss next to Fat Joe. And Assistant US Attorney Carolyn Pokorny, who was pretty sharp and matter-of-fact through most of her opening arguments, hesitated for a second when Russell Simmons and Jay-Z walked in. I had to wonder when the last time was that Jay and Dame were in the same building; Jay bolted out really quickly as soon as Pokorny finished her argument, and I couldn’t tell whether it was because Dame was there or just because he had an empire to run.
Pokorny did a fairly good job presenting a fairly weak case. She started out: “The two men behind me, they laundered money for one of the biggest, baddest drug lords in New York City. That’s what they did.” She said that the defense had been trying to distract the jury, that the case wasn’t about the music business or hip-hop. She explained that the money-laundering meant that bad money went to Irv and Chris Lorenzo and good money went back to Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, and she argued that the only piece of that puzzle in contention was whether the Lorenzos were receiving money from Supreme, since it had been established that they’d written him checks. Pokorny described all the traveling that Supreme had done and the Lorenzos had paid for (“I’m sure you guys were nauseated after a while”) and described the checks they’d cut to Supreme’s film company Picture Perfect and to the publishing house that owned the rights to the Crime Partners book. She said that Irv had sent a $75,000 check to a car dealership for Supreme in December 2002 and once again explained how the Lorenzos had helped negotiate the deal in which Def Jam had paid Supreme $1 million for the soundtrack album for Crime Partners, an album to which they’d donated tracks. So the question was whether the defendants had received any money from Supreme, and Pokorny pointed out a text message from Chris to Supreme (“Niggas is asking me what’s up with the paper”), which she said proved that they were. She also made note of the handwritten notes on the budget that federal agents had found in Chris’s office, which said that Supreme was due money, and she described how associates of Supreme had become “formally embedded in Murder Inc.” Pokorny also mentioned a text message that Supreme had sent Irv (“I need that money if you can get it. Ja needs his share.”), which she submitted as evidence that Irv had slipped up and broadcast information. She said that the label’s association with Supreme hadn’t helped it sell any records, that the Lorenzos had never publicized their relationship with Supreme, and that he’d never signed their fake loan agreement for the Crime Partners checks. And she argued that they’d covered up the money they paid him, alternately calling it an investment, a loan, and a fee in different documents. Pokorny brought out banks records, saying that Chris had been spending more than he made, “oozing, hemorrhaging, spitting out, swimming in cash,” cash that he could’ve only received from Supreme. And she said that all four of her witnesses (Romano, Banks, Nichols, and Ragin) had corroborated the information. Ragin had seen Supreme go into Murder Inc. with a bag of money and was there when Irv and Supreme discussed it, Romano had said money would go up from Baltimore to New York and had taken Supreme to Murder Inc. offices once, Nichols had seen the money come into the office and heard Irv tell his accountant to cut the checks, and Banks had said he was giving Irv drug money way back in 1996. These testimonies, Pokorny said, were so strong that the defense had to distract from them by attacking the witnesses’ credibility. She even got choked up talking about how defense lawyers had called Nichols “homeless” after finding out that he’d spent September 11 in a bus station trying to get back to New York, saying that Nichols’ testimony was courageous. After two hours of repeating the prosecution’s evidence, she seemed to at least think she had a case.
And then Chris’s lawyer Gerald Shargel went to work. One of the other reporters said that watching Shargel was like watching Michael Jordan, and he was totally right. Shargel hits emotional notes perfectly: indignance, derisiveness, amusement. He started out by noting that Ragin had first been arrested when he was wrongly charged with dealing ecstasy, a charge that came from federal agents misinterpreting his text messages. He said that the Lorenzos’ case, like Ragin’s initial case, was based on speculation, vague text messages that don’t point out anything specifically. “Sitting there are two young men who have worked all their lives,” he said, before going on to say that the only evidence from the testimonies had come from two witnesses who had contradicted each other: Nichols, who said he’d seen Supreme deliver cash to the Murder Inc. offices and that he’d delivered the checks to the Crime Partners shoot, and Ragin, who said he’d seen Supreme say that Irv could pick up the cash at his hotel room. Shargel also pointed out that associating with Supreme wasn’t illegal even if he was the biggest drug dealer in the world and Crime Partners was the worst movie ever: “Doing business with a criminal does not make you a criminal unless you yourself commit a crime. These young men committed no crime.” Nichols had said that $500,000 in cash from Supreme had been deposited in various accounts, and Shargel noted that this was false. Ragin, he pointed out, hadn’t been able to testify that the Lornezos ever got a dollar in cash. He used the phrase “dirty glasses” a lot; the government didn’t like that the Lorenzos had so much cash, figuring there must be something wrong with it. And he noted that the Lorenzos didn’t need any cash from Supreme, that the money they gave him had been in exchange for keeping them safe from “the street element.” Supreme had leant his image and muscle and protection, valuable things, and he’d been paid for them. Ragin had testified that Supreme wasn’t doing well financially and that Murder Inc. was; the money for his travel and for the movie were inconsequential for them. Supreme had wanted to make a movie, and he wasn’t a person who could be refused. And all the witnesses had something to gain from their testimonies, be it a reduced sentence or, in Nichols’s case, a moment of fame. Once again, Nichols was described as a compulsive liar: “Nichols is always trying to make himself a big shot.” As for the text message about “Ja’s share,” Ja Rule had performed at a party that Supreme had promoted the month before the message went out; Shagel said that this money was show money. All in all, it was a pretty stunning performance.
After that, Irv’s lawyer Gerald Lefcourt pretty much just cleaned up the pieces. He said that the case was based on a cultural divide; the people prosecuting it didn’t like or understand rap and didn’t like to see the Lorenzos making money. Fifty agents, he noted, had raided the Murder Inc. offices in 2003 and that the news accounts of the raid were “casting calls” for witnesses. They’d given Banks a deal a month before the trial because they were desperate. Banks didn’t know Irv or care about him; he only wanted to get out of prison time. He described Nichols as a little kid caught lying, spinning crazy stories when people called him on his lies. He described Supreme as a taker, calling in favors from people he knew so he could make his movie. And he did something I’ve been waiting for: he mentioned that Frank Sinatra, too, had had criminal friends but that it hadn’t been illegal then either. “In this country,” Lefcourt said, “we don’t destroy lives based on that kind of assumption and guesswork.” He called the case “topsy-turvy,” violent people being given deals to testify against good people, IRS agents testifying against the only people involved in the case who actually paid taxes. There wasn’t much left of the prosecution’s case by the time Lefcourt finished.
The rebuttal was hard to watch. Assistant US Attorney Sean Haran was visibly flustered, repeating points over and over and speaking with the sort of sarcastic over-enunciation you usually hear from high-schoolers arguing with their parents. He said that the defendants were guilty if they’d accepted any money at all from Supreme and that the text-messages didn’t make sense except as Chris and Irv asking Supreme for money. Irv really did need money, he said, or he wouldn’t have written Supreme about Ja’s share. He stayed on the point that Murder Inc. hadn’t sold any records because of its association with Supreme. Supreme only kept people around because they were useful, he said, and Irv and Chris were only useful to launder money. (He actually hurt his case there, since it was pretty obvious that Supreme was using Irv and Chris for their entertainment-business connections.) And he insisted that there was no consistency between the testimonies of Nichols and Ragin. But Haran’s entire demeanor was fatalistic, and he seemed to know he’d been beaten. The government doesn’t have much of a case, and lawyers like Shargel and Lefcourt aren’t going to let them get away without making an airtight case. We’ll probably know for certain tomorrow, but Irv and Chris Gotti are so not going to jail.
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on the Murder Inc. trial
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 30, 2005