Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, Jamaal "Shyne" Barrow, and Anthony Jones Trial: 2001
Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, Jamaal
"Shyne" Barrow, and Anthony Jones
Defendants: Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, Jamaal "Shyne" Barrow, Anthony Jones
Crimes Charged: Combs and Jones: Criminal possession of a firearm, bribing a witness; Barrow: Attempted murder, assault, criminal use and possession of a firearm, reckless endangerment
Chief Defense Lawyers: Combs: Benjamin Brafman, Johnnie Cochran, Jr.; Jones: Michael Bachner; Barrow: lan Niles, Murray Richman
Chief Prosecutor: Matthew Bogdanos
Judge: Charles Solomon
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: January 17-March 16, 2001
Verdict: Combs and Jones: acquitted; Barrow: acquitted of attempted murder and on one count of assault, guilty of all other charges
Sentence: Barrow: 10 years imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: In one of the twenty-first century's first "celebrity trials," attorneys, pundits, and the public argued over whether hip-hop music star Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs was a wealthy bully trying to bribe his way out of a possible 15-year prison sentence or a mild-mannered multimillionaire being persecuted for rap music's frequent association with violence.
Around 2:30 a.m. on December 27, 1999, gunfire exploded inside Club New York, a midtown Manhattan nightclub. As ambulances were dispatched to the club to treat wounded patrons, police surrounded a sport utility vehicle that had raced away through red traffic lights. When a 9mm pistol was discovered in the car, the passengers were arrested. They included music executive Sean Combs and his retinue, including film and music star Jennifer Lopez, bodyguard Anthony "Wolf Jones, and chauffeur Wardell Fenderson. Jamaal "Shyne" Barrow, an aspiring rap singer Combs was grooming for his Bad Boy Records label, was arrested at Club New York.
The incident was traced to an exchange between the arrested men and Matthew "Scar" Allen, who had thrown a wad of cash at Combs as an insult after Allen's drink was spilled at the crowded bar. The case immediately drew headlines, not because of the three people wounded in the shooting, but because of the celebrity of those arrested. Combs, also known as "Puff Daddy" or "Puffy," was one of the wealthiest executives and performers in the music business. Lopez, Combs's girlfriend and a well-known actress and singer, was released without being charged. After hours of questioning, however, gun possession and assault charges were filed against Combs, Jones, and Barrow. Combs and Jones were further charged with trying to bribe Fenderson by offering him $50,000 to tell police that the pistol found in the vehicle was his.
Barrow, who faced attempted murder, assault, gun possession, and reckless endangerment charges, was clearly in the most serious trouble with the law. Due to Combs's celebrity, however, the case would become known as "the Puff Daddy trial." Combs had become famous as a rap singer, producer, songwriter, and talent scout. Contrary to the tough persona of his records, his attorneys began portraying him as a fatherless young man who had left college to build a multimillion-dollar business empire, which included his own recording, clothing, restaurant, and film concerns. In the courts of law and public opinion, battles raged over whether the real Combs was a gangster or a CEO. His legal record was not spotless. In 1999, he was arrested for beating a record executive and had been sentenced to one day in an anger management program after pleading guilty to a lesser charge. He was also being sued by a television show host he had allegedly assaulted and faced a weapons charge over an incident at another New York nightclub.
Tainted Witnesses or a Bad Case?
When testimony began on January 29, 2001, prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos proposed that Combs was responsible for the shooting because his celebrity status had allowed his party to enter Club New York without being searched for weapons. Bogdanos also accused Combs of firing a gun into the club's ceiling during the fight. Combs's lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, loudly accused the prosecution of persecuting his client despite a lack of factual evidence.
The trial quickly became a contest over the quality of witness testimony. Two prosecution witnesses, both of whom had testified before a grand jury that they witnessed an argument between Combs and Allen, changed their stories on the stand, infuriating prosecutor Bogdanos. They denied being able to identify Combs as a participant in the scuffle or seeing him with a gun. A third witness admitted that she was unsure what she might have seen in Combs's hand as he ran from the club. By contrast, numerous witnesses placed a gun in Barrow's hand.
The first witness claiming to have seen a gun in Combs's hand was Natania Ruben, Thewho was witnessshot in the face during the incident. guninCombs'sRuben testified saw both Combs and Barrow fire. When Ruben stuck to her story, defense attorney Brafman accused her of trying to malign Combs's reputation to aid her multimillion-dollar damages lawsuit against him. The second witness to place a gun in Combs's possession was chauffeur Wardell Fenderson, who testified that he saw Combs slip a pistol into his waistband before entering Club New York. The driver described Combs and Jones fumbling with a hidden compartment in the vehicle, trying to hide the weapon as police chased them from the club. Fenderson assumed that Jones or Combs had thrown a weapon from the SUV, for he had seen light stream through an opening window. Fenderson also accused Combs of offering him a diamond ring as part of a $50,000 payment for claiming ownership of the gun found in the vehicle. "Listen, you know, I'm Puff Daddy. I can't take the gun," Combs allegedly told the driver. Fenderson testified that he was tempted by the offer and accepted, but later declined it.
While Judge Charles Solomon was refereeing daily shouted objections from both sides, the media commented on everything from Combs's mother's wardrobe to the possibility that Jennifer Lopez might appear as a witness. Amid reports that Lopez and Combs had ended their relationship, speculators wondered which side might call her as a witness. Ultimately, she did not testify at all.
When the defense began its case, it concentrated on claims that Combs had been seen with a weapon at all, let alone firing one. Most damaging to the prosecution was security guard Cherise Myers, who recalled "Scar" Allen throwing money in Combs's face and being jostled as club customers grappled for the cash. Myers was advising Combs to leave the club rather than argue with Allen when she saw Barrow firing twice. She fell on top of Combs to protect him. Other people then tumbled on top of them. Myers testified that she never saw a gun in Combs's hands. Several witnesses recalled Combs dancing on a coffee table at the club with his arms raised. None saw a gun in his exposed waistband. When Combs took the stand in his own defense, his attorney asked him if he had a gun at any time on the night of the incident. "Absolutely not," Combs replied.
Lawyers Battle in Closing Arguments
Closing arguments were as acrimonious as the rest of the trial. Prosecutor Bogdanos reminded the jury that there were shooting victims in the case and insinuated that Combs had actively tried to bribe witnesses to change their testimony. Attorney Brafman responded with a full assault on the prosecution's witnesses. "Bad people came into this courtroom and made bad accusations because they wanted to get rich," Brafman said. He reminded jurors that Fenderson had a $3 million suit pending against Combs for emotional stress, implying that the driver was hoping to get enough money to pay off thousands of dollars in outstanding child support payments. Brafman pointed out that another shooting victim who testified for the prosecution claimed on the witness stand that he was suing for $17,000 in medical expenses, when in fact the suit sought $700 million from Combs. The other defense lawyers disputed the prosecution's scenario. Jones's attorney Michael Bachner claimed that the gun found in the vehicle belonged to Wardell Fenderson, not his client. Barrow's attorney Ian Niles admitted that his client had a gun, but argued that Barrow had fired in selfdefense and to clear an escape route through the packed room.
The courtroom was tense when verdicts were delivered on March 16. Combs and Jones were acquitted of all charges. Barrow was acquitted of attempted murder and on one count of assault, but was found guilty of all the remaining charges against him. As Barrow was taken into custody, Combs left court quietly, thanking God and his mother for supporting him throughout the trial.
At his sentencing on June 1, Barrow apologized to the shooting victims and said that he had fired his gun in a panic. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Although "Puffy" Combs still faced civil suits seeking millions in damages, his acquittal ended the threat of his imprisonment for the Club New York fracas.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Finkeistein, Katherine E. "Defense Calls Combs Trial 'Stupid' Case." New, York Time (March 13, 2001): B3.
—. "Hip-Hop Star Cleared of Charges In Shooting at a Manhattan Club." New York Times (March 17, 2001): Al, B2.
Italiano, Laura. "Getaway Driver: I Saw Gun in His Hand." New York Post, (February 16, 2001): 2—3.