1. Archive

Hip-hop mogul Combs acquitted of all charges

Published Sep. 9, 2005

After two days of deliberations, a jury Friday evening acquitted Sean "Puffy" Combs, the hip-hop music mogul, of gun possession and bribery charges stemming from a shooting inside a Manhattan nightclub in 1999.

Combs' bodyguard, Anthony Jones, who faced similar charges, also was found not guilty. Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, a rap musician and a protege of Combs, was convicted on two counts of assault in the shooting of two people and of reckless endangerment. But he was acquitted on a third count of assault in the wounding of a third victim.

Moments after he walked out of the courtroom, Combs called his children on a cell phone with the good news.

"I just wanted to tell you everything is all right," he told his son, Justin.

The jury of five women and seven men filed into the courtroom shortly before 7 p.m. to deliver its verdict.

Combs was clutching a Bible when the verdict was read. The Grammy-winning multimillionaire quickly embraced his legal team, with lawyers Benjamin Brafman and Johnnie Cochran burying their heads against Combs' shoulder.

"It's bittersweet," Combs later said of the verdict. "My heart goes out to everybody who was hurt by this."

The trial, which lasted seven weeks and included 60 witnesses and 126 court exhibits, was a battle of wills between the Manhattan district attorney's office and Combs, who rejected a plea bargain that required jail time.

Throughout the trial, Combs' lawyers asserted that he was innocent and that he was prosecuted because of his fame and wealth.

The prosecutor, Matthew Bogdanos, set out to prove that Combs took advantage of his celebrity from the moment he strode into Club New York on W 43rd Street near Times Square just after midnight on Dec. 27, 1999. Neither he nor members of his entourage were searched for weapons, as were regular patrons, Bogdanos noted. And once under arrest, Combs expected the same special treatment from the legal system, Bogdanos argued, attempting to influence witnesses through offers of cash.

The nightclub party, which began as a festive occasion for members of the rap music industry, ended in pandemonium. Minutes after three patrons were shot, one in the face, Combs fled the nightclub in a Lincoln Navigator, with his former girlfriend, the actor and singer Jennifer Lopez; his bodyguard, Jones; and his driver, Wardell Fenderson.

Witness after witness testified that after hours of dancing and drinking champagne, a fight broke out between a patron, Matthew Allen, and Combs' entourage, and that insults were traded after Allen threw a wad of money at Combs as a show of disrespect.

Prosecution witnesses, including the most seriously injured victim, Natania Reuben, testified that Allen, who goes by the nickname Scar, threatened to kill Barrow. Reuben then said she saw flashes from two shots _ one each fired by Combs and Barrow _ and grasped her face as a bullet hit her nose.

"I just saw bam bam, like a bright muzzle flash from both guns at the same time, completely obliterate my vision," Reuben testified. "They both fired."

Nine witnesses testified that they saw Barrow with a gun, some describing the bright light of a muzzle flash, others recalling how smoke issued from his gun after the sound of shots exploded over the blaring music.

Three witnesses testified that they saw Combs at the club with a gun. Allen, who fled after the shooting and was arrested last month in Maryland on three outstanding warrants unrelated to the case, did not testify. But in a statement he gave to the police shortly after the nightclub shooting, he said, "I could see both Shyne and Puffy firing guns."

But in cross-examination, Brafman not only drew out many inconsistencies in the witness' statements, but pointed to a motive for their testimony: Reuben and the two other victims have filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits against Combs.

In his closing statement on Monday, Brafman characterized their testimony as a version of "Who Wants to Be a Billionaire" or "The old Price Is Right joke, "Come on down.' " On a more serious note, he told the jury, "Bad people came into this courtroom and made bad accusations because they wanted to get rich."

_ Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.