X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Attorney: Benjamin Brafman, 52 Firm: New York’s Brafman & Ross Case: People v. Combs (Sup. Ct., New York Co., N.Y.) Winning Points: � Embrace and turn around negative facts. � Exploit motives of prosecution witnesses. � Try to find working-class jurors. In any criminal trial, the defense attorney has to “embrace the facts that hurt you and turn them around,” says Benjamin Brafman. When Brafman recently represented the rap entrepreneur Sean “Puffy” Combs on gun and bribery charges in New York, he acknowledged that several witnesses had been wounded in a nightclub after an altercation between Combs and another club patron. But he neutralized the victims’ claims that Combs was carrying a gun by pointing out repeatedly the multimillion dollar lawsuits each of the victims had filed against the defendant. “This case was all about money,” Brafman told the jury. “The only witnesses who incriminated Sean had substantial economic interests” in his being found guilty. “This was a game show — Who Wants to be a Billionaire?” It was a defense the New York jury accepted unanimously, handing Brafman one of his biggest wins. He has long been recognized as one of the nation’s best criminal defense attorneys, winning about 80 percent of his cases at trial in a jurisdiction noted for the success of prosecutors. He has won acquittals in several high-profile New York criminal trials, including the 1998 trial on racketeering charges of New York nightclub owner Peter Gatien. Sean Combs was accused of four counts of gun possession and one count of bribing a witness, in a prosecution arising from a Dec. 27, 1999, incident in a Manhattan nightclub in which three bystanders were shot. The prosecution alleged that Combs showed a gun at the club, threw a gun from his fleeing limousine and tried to bribe his driver into saying a gun found in the car belonged to the driver. Combs’ prot�g�, Jamal Barrow, who was accused of firing the shots in Club New York, was charged with attempted murder and tried with Combs. Combs’ celebrity was a major concern, Brafman says. “Notoriety always un-levels the playing field. The perception is that celebrities get off because they’re rich. But sometimes the price of celebrity gets you indicted,” he says. BAD PRESS The press was overwhelmingly negative. “Prior incidents in Mr. Combs’ past kept being brought up again and again.” One of these incidents was a concert at which several young people had been trampled to death. “Mr. Combs was not responsible. He was never charged. He was never blamed. But at every turn, the press brought it up.” Before signing on to defend Combs, he says, “I had no clue what kind of intense pressure there would be as a result of the media’s relentlessness.” One of the biggest decisions, he says, was whether to call singer-actress Jennifer Lopez to the stand in Combs’ defense. Lopez was at the nightclub. Ultimately, she did not testify. “My principal concern was that this circus atmosphere was going to make it difficult to control the arena and stay focused on the case itself.” Brafman was also worried that too many prospective jurors would already have made up their minds. Brafman asked prospective jurors what they had heard about the case. “It was not possible to find someone who did not know about the incident,” he says. “If the juror said he’d heard something about a shooting in a club involving Sean Combs and Jennifer Lopez, I could live with that,” Brafman says. But if the prospective juror said, ” ‘I heard Sean Combs shot some people and threw a gun out of his limo and bribed the driver,’ then I felt that was someone who was so brainwashed by the media that we couldn’t turn it around.” For this jury, Brafman says, “We were looking for working-class people who would be impressed with Mr. Combs.” At 20, Combs had been an intern at a record company; at 22, he was president of a record company; at 30, he ran a hip-hop empire. “Working-class people would understand that when a guy like Sean Combs becomes a major star and multimillionaire, it doesn’t happen by accident,” Brafman says. He also sought out jurors with teen-age children. The prosecution, he felt, would paint Combs with a broad “gangsta rapper” brush. Parents of children who owned rap music records “would be more tolerant, more understanding. They wouldn’t convict Mr. Combs simply because the image of rap is negative.” NO GUN, NO BRIBE In his opening, Brafman established two basic themes. First, “Sean Combs was completely innocent. He never had a gun. There was no bribe.” Second, that the witnesses against him had a profit motive. These themes governed his approach to the prosecution’s star witnesses — the victims. Natania Reuben, who had been shot in the face, was the most seriously injured. “Under normal circumstances, you have to tread lightly with a victim,” Brafman says. But Reuben had testified that Combs fired a weapon in the club, and her appearance in direct had been effective. “I knew if I didn’t go after her, I would lose the trial.” He says, “The manner of your cross can convey to the jury what you feel about the witness. I did not want them to conclude that I felt sorry for this woman or that I believed her.” He said he was sorry she was hurt but showed no sympathy thereafter. He noted that she had wrongly identified Combs as wearing a coat and that she also claimed, in her lawsuit, that Combs’ bodyguard had shot her. Brafman confronted Reuben with a statement by an acquaintance in which Reuben claimed a conviction would help her civil case. Brafman got the witness to confirm that she was suing Combs and his bodyguard for $150 million. “[T]he lawsuit clearly undermined her credibility.” Another prosecution witness posed a greater danger. Tarnisha Smith had testified at the grand jury and in direct examination that she saw Combs running out of the nightclub with a gun in his hand. And Smith was not suing Combs. “She did not come with any baggage,” he says. “She was a demure, articulate, sympathetic African-American kid who worked for the Museum of Natural History.” With Smith, he says, “My approach was almost genteel at the beginning, telling her if she wasn’t sure, that’s OK. I had her describe in minute detail all that she saw.” Through her, Brafman brought out a scene in the nightclub of utter confusion, with hundreds of clubgoers running or dropping to the ground in the moment after the first shot was fired. Smith admitted that she ducked down as well, blocking much of her view of the club. Smith had testified “that Sean was running with a black object in his hand,” Brafman recalls. He had her position him in the way she saw Combs after the first shot. He held a black cell phone in his hand and asked her, “Can you see what I’m holding?” “No, I cannot,” she replied. He pursued, “Could you actually see what was in his hand?” “At that time, that’s what I thought I saw, so, no, I can’t.” “She completely disintegrated on cross,” Brafman says. On March 16, the Manhattan jury acquitted Combs of all charges.

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.