The Puff Daddy Trial: Scenes from the Throwdown Downtown

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Mr. Daddy heads into court

The line between MTV and Court TV blurred a bit more this week. DMX, through his publicist, announced plans to turn himself in to authorities to serve a 15-day prison sentence for a traffic infraction (in my critical opinion, the judge ought to tack on a few more days just for DMX's last two CDs). Eminem, also this week, pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon, and prosecutors agreed to drop an assault charge against him (the Grammy folks, who nominated Eminem's bigoted but best-selling "The Marshall Mathers LP" for album of the year, should probably plead guilty to soliciting).

Here in New York City, however, the case getting the most attention is that of Sean "Puffy" Combs. The hip-hop mogul/fashion designer is on trial for his alleged role in a shooting in a Manhattan nightclub in December of 1999 in which three people were hurt. He's been charged with weapons possession and bribery and, if convicted on all counts, could spend up to 15 years in prison. Combs has other worries as well — this week he announced (through his publicist) that he and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez, had split. Since the announcement that he had broken up with one of the sexiest women in the world was made on Feb.14, Puff Daddy is now officially on record as having had the worst Valentine's Day ever.

Combs' trial is being held in the courthouse on 111 Centre Street in New York City. Surprisingly, comparatively few people wanted to see it in person. There were two lines — one for working press, the other for the public — of about a dozen people each stretching along a narrow corridor on the seventh floor. At around 9 a.m. members of Combs' legal team — including Johnnie Cochran and Benjamin Brafman — squeezed past everyone and, minutes later, the rest of us were let in.

The courtroom was rather small, seating perhaps 100 people comfortably. The press was seated on the right (facing the judge) and members of the general public on the left. At the start of the Friday session, the room was only about half full. Several courtroom cops strolled around, dressed in white shirts, black ties and gold badges. They were also wearing large bulky black belts with all sorts of pouches and things hanging off of them — kinda like Dwayne Schneider on "One Day at a Time" — but unlike the sitcom super, the cops in the courtroom were also carrying holstered pistols. Despite their weaponry, many of the cops were friendly and smiling and greeted some of the reporters by name.

Combs' legal team was seated on the front right-hand side of the courtroom. There were nine people, including Combs, at the table. The prosecutors' table at the left — perhaps to give a David-vs.-Goliath impression to the jury — had just one person seated at it, assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos. All of Combs' people were dressed in suits that varied in color from banker's black all the way to banker's gray. Puffy himself was dressed in a gray suit with a thin blue checkerboard pattern. When I first saw him enter the courtroom I thought he was a lawyer.

The jurors filed in and Wardel "Woody" Federson, took the stand. For some reason almost everyone associated with the trial has a nickname — there's Combs' co-defendant Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, Combs' bodyguard Anthony "Wolf" Jones, Combs' ex-girlfriend Jennifer "J.Lo" Lopez, and of course, Combs himself, a.k.a. Puff Daddy, Puffy and, most ridiculously, P-diddy. Brafman stood behind a podium a short distance from the witness box to cross-examine Fenderson, who was the driver of the alleged getaway car, a Lincoln Navigator, on the night of the shootings. Brafman has a strong voice and speaks in a loud, aggressive manner — the same tone of voice you might use to, say, denounce a terrorist attack on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. When Brafman began his queries, the courtroom took on a kind of off-Broadway feeling, as if one was watching a performance instead of a legal proceeding. He tore into Fenderson's account of Puffy allegedly slipping in a gun in his waistband on the night of the shooting. "Wasn't [Combs] wearing a fur coat?" Brafman barked. Later Brafman added "You ever try getting out of a fur coat sitting in a car?" Many of Brafman's questions appeared to be rhetorical, and Bogdanos objected numerous times.

The animosity between Brafman and Bogdanos reached a boiling point after about an hour. Brafman was questioning Fenderson about what he saw and did when Combs and Lopez were handcuffed to a pole on a bench in a police station shortly after the shooting incident. Federson was in a nearby cell, but the lawyers strongly disagreed on just how far away he was from Lopez and Combs. At one point Brafman scolded Bogdanos: "Behave! Behave!" Judge Charles Solomon had heard enough. The jury was sent out of the room and he scolded the feuding lawyers. "You can call each other names if you want, but just not in front of the jury."

Then things got really whiny. Bogdanos complained that in a previous session Brafman had called him "snotty." Said Bogdanos: "If he draws first blood... " The judge responded: "It's not the playground." But it was too late. It was the playground. And the spectators were twittering with laughter. After things settled down, the jury was brought back in and Brafman continued his cross-examination. Fenderson held to his story that he saw Combs with a gun on the night of the shootings, but he was unclear on details. He said that he saw Combs pull up his "Sean John" sweat top to put a gun in his waistband, but couldn't recall whether Combs was wearing a T-shirt underneath his sweat top or not. He also testified that Combs offered him a bribe of a pinkie ring while Combs was handcuffed in the police station, but Fenderson was unable to recall which of Combs' hands was handcuffed.

The trial is expected to go on for a few weeks. Both sides are under a gag order, but the case is nonetheless grabbing headlines nearly every day. With Puff Daddy and other rappers in the legal spotlight, the subject of hip-hop and violence is back on the nation's editorial pages. Puff Daddy, Eminem and DMX aren't great artists, but they have all, at some point, recorded material that I've enjoyed, including DMX's "Ruff Ryders Anthem," Eminemís "Guilty Conscience," and Puff Daddy's production work with Mary J. Blige. They have also all recorded lyrics that I've abhorred — some critics may give Eminem credit for his "edgy" wordplay, but in my book attacking gays and women is pretty cowardly stuff. Then again, my book didn't sell 8 million copies and Eminem's album has.

As various hip-hoppers faces charges of violence in their lyrics and in their lives it's worth noting that the number one movie in America is the gross-out thriller "Hannibal," the most nominated film at the upcoming Oscars is the bloody epic "Gladiator," and HBO's much-acclaimed gangsta series "The Sopranos" is set to premiere the first episode of its upcoming season next week. If you can't get enough hip-hop-style violence in the courtroom or on CD, there's plenty of society-approved hip-hop-style violence elsewhere in the world of entertainment.