Pretrial Arguments Hint At How Puffy Case Will Play Out

Defense expected to challenge all aspects of prosecution's account of shootings, attack credibility of witnesses.

The early hours of December 27, 1999, will be relived over and over in the trial of Sean "Puffy" Combs, Jamal "Shyne" Barrow and bodyguard Anthony "Wolf" Jones, which begins Monday with opening arguments.

The three entered Manhattan's Club New York that night without being searched for weapons, prosecution witnesses will testify. They were there, along with singer/actress Jennifer Lopez and others, for the weekly "Hot Chocolate" hip-hop party at the club, nestled in the heart of Times Square.

"When defendants Combs and Jones became involved in an argument in which they believed a third party was disrespecting them, all three defendants engaged in retaliatory conduct," prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos wrote in one court document. A club patron — who has not yet been identified — allegedly started the argument by throwing cash at Combs.

"Within feet and milliseconds of each other, both Combs and Barrow pulled out 9 mm semiautomatic handguns — and after the smoke cleared, three people lay shot on the floor. All three defendants then fled the club," Bogdanos continued.

Shyne is alleged to have been the gunman that night, while Combs is charged with possessing two guns: one that he allegedly brandished in the club and another that was found in the Lincoln Navigator they left in.

Combs also faces bribery charges for allegedly trying to persuade driver Wardel Fenderson to say the gun in the SUV was his. Jones is also charged with possessing that gun as well as attempting to bribe Fenderson. (Click here for a complete explanation of the charges in the case.)

Lawyers' arguments in pretrial hearings and during jury selection in recent weeks provide some hints of how the defense team's strategy will play out.

Defense lawyers will challenge just about every aspect of Bogdanos' narrative. Combs' lawyers, in particular, are poised to attack the credibility of prosecution witnesses such as shooting victim Natania Reuben and Fenderson, painting them as liars and opportunists.

Both have filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the defendants, which the defense will likely use to suggest that their testimony is motivated by money. In Reuben's case, Combs' lawyers hope to use her appearance on the TV show "People's Court" to show her to be dishonest (see "Puffy's Lawyers To Attack Witness' TV Appearance").

Shyne's lawyers, meanwhile, appear ready to argue that the rapper was not the shooter at the club, and that he was the victim of mistaken identification.

Combs' lawyers will argue that he had nothing to do with the shooting, that he never had a gun that night and that he thought the shooting was an assassination attempt. When Combs spoke to Fenderson after their arrests, he was merely trying to find the owner of the gun, they will say (see "Puffy Tried To Discover Who Owned Gun, Lawyer Says").

And lawyers for both Combs and Jones will likely argue that the gun in the Lincoln Navigator belonged to Fenderson, who was in the car for several hours before they got in.

During each hearing so far, Bogdanos has sat alone on one side of the courtroom, while no fewer than five lawyers — including Combs attorney Johnnie Cochran, who one prospective juror described as "the most famous lawyer in the world" — plus the three defendants, sit on other side.

Despite Cochran's fame, it appears that Combs' other lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, who once defended Mafia figure Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, will act as the rapper's lead attorney. The stout, immaculately attired Brafman appeared to charm jurors during the selection process, as did Cochran, who on Thursday wore a suit the shade of purple most commonly found in the closets of Batman villains.

No one should expect a defining moment in Combs' trial to rival when O.J. Simpson tried on the gloves supposedly worn by the killer in his case.

"Everyone expects a Perry Mason moment ... but this is real life," Cochran told potential jurors.

The trial is expected to last between five and seven weeks. As is customary, Bogdanos will present his case first; defense lawyers will then call their witnesses, who may include Lopez.