NEW YORK Witnesses will testify that Sean "Puffy" Combs tucked a gun into his waistband before he entered Club New York on the night of December 26, 1999, and that he fired the gun into the club's ceiling during an argument there, prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos said during opening statements Monday morning (January 29).
Meanwhile, Combs' lawyer Benjamin Brafman argued in his opening statement that not only did Combs not have a gun that night, but he was threatened in the club by a stranger who brandished a gun and said he would "bust a cap in [Combs'] ass." Witnesses saw Combs dancing on top of a table with his arms up in the air, exposing his waist, Brafman said. They will testify that they did not see a gun, according to Brafman.
Among the prosecution's witnesses will be the man whose argument with Combs allegedly sparked the shootings. The man will testify that he elbowed Combs after the rapper knocked over his drink while leaving the club, Bogdanos said.
They began cursing at each other, and the argument spread to the people around the two men, the prosecutor said. After someone threw a stack of money in Combs' face, rapper Jamal "Shyne" Barrow is alleged to have opened fire, wounding three bystanders.
One of the two guns Combs is accused of possessing was allegedly thrown out of the Lincoln Navigator in which he fled the club. (Click Here for a complete explanation of the charges in the case.) During opening statements, Bogdanos revealed the details of how that gun was allegedly found.
George Pappas a driver for a prostitution agency was sitting in his parked car on Eighth Avenue on the morning of December 27 when the Navigator drove by. Pappas will testify that he saw the window at the rear right of the car where Combs allegedly sat go down so that someone could throw out a gun, which landed on his car. Pappas picked the gun up and eventually turned it over to his boss, an FBI informant. The boss turned it over to the FBI, who brought it to the district attorney's office.
Combs, in a blue pinstripe suit, occasionally shook his head in disgust as Bogdanos spoke.
In his statement, Brafman assailed the credibility of Pappas and of the prosecution's other witnesses, such as driver Wardel Fenderson, who will testify that he saw Combs put the gun in his waistband. He called Pappas and his boss "criminals." "He works for a prostitution agency, driving hookers all over the city," Brafman said.
The attorney argued that Combs has been wrongfully charged with gun possession and bribery because of his celebrity status. Witnesses, he said, are presenting false testimony in hopes of financial gain.
"This case is about fame. This case is about money. This case is about opportunists," Brafman said. "The evidence will show that Puff Daddy would not be here if he were John Q. Public." In his opening statement, Shyne's lawyer, Murray Richman, depicted his client as a talented young man from an impoverished background. Richman said that on the night of the shootings, Shyne became a victim of people "who are jealous of talent, who by their jealousy feel they have to denigrate and hurt people." More than one person at Club New York had a gun, and they threatened Shyne as well as Combs, said Richman, who denied that Shyne fired a gun.
"Who are the original agitators? Why don't we hear about them?" Richman asked.
Bodyguard Anthony "Wolf" Jones is charged, along with Combs, with possessing a gun found in the Navigator, as well as with allegedly bribing Fenderson to say the gun was his.
Jones' lawyer, Michael Bachner, used his opening statement to suggest, as Brafman did, that the gun found in the Navigator in fact belonged to Fenderson, and that the driver, who has filed a lawsuit against the defendants, is motivated by greed.
He also suggested that the prosecution's narrative of the night's events is illogical. "The prosecution argues that one gun went out the window. Why didn't two guns go out the window?" After the opening statements, Bogdanos began calling witnesses, including the police officer who arrested Shyne as he ran out of Club New York just after the shooting.
He also called Leonard Curtis Howard, a Combs employee and former corrections officer who worked as the rapper's bodyguard on the night of the shooting.
Howard testified that Combs was not searched on his way into Club New York, but his memory faltered on many other key points, as he contradicted his own grand jury testimony from a year ago. For example, Howard told the grand jury that he had never seen Combs searched on his way into a club, but on Monday Howard said that he had seen that happen several times. Bogdanos repeatedly showed Howard the transcript of the testimony, which several times prompted him to amend his answers.
Howard told the grand jury that he had no way of knowing if Combs had a gun that night, but said Monday that he had seen Combs dancing with his arms up and had also put his hand around Combs' waist while moving him through the crowd. He had not seen nor felt any sign of a gun, he said.
After the jury left the courtroom, Bogdanos angrily told Judge Charles Solomon that he believed Howard perjured himself in order to help Combs' case.
Brafman, who began cross-examining Howard late Monday afternoon and will continue doing so on Wednesday, said Howard's lapses were due to an unspecified serious illness he's battled over the past year. Brafman also blamed Bogdanos for not giving the witness a chance to review his grand jury testimony, and asked the judge to consider allowing him to ask Howard about that issue.
Shyne is due in court for a hearing on witness identification issues Tuesday afternoon; the trial proper continues Wednesday morning.