In the courtroom (and hallways) with Puff Daddy

At the trial of Mr. Combs, one reporter claims the D.A. "has a hard-on" for Puffy. "He's going after rappers. For him it's personal."

Topics: Celebrity,

On Wednesday, at 8:30 a.m., the scene in front of the courthouse is calm. The big TV trucks have yet to arrive, and only a few bleary-eyed cameramen and a cluster of policemen mingle among the metal barricades set about 10 feet away from the building entrance. The mustachioed cop who tells me that, yes, this is the building in which the Puff Daddy trial is being held looks expectant, like he’s waiting for the party to start.

I put my bags on the conveyor belt and stroll through the metal detector.

“Stop her!” hollers one guard. I am told to leave my tape recorder at the main desk and given a receipt to retrieve it at the end of the day.

“I didn’t know,” I meekly mutter to the large, no-nonsense fellow behind the circular desk who takes my name down in big block letters and seals my recorder in a Zip-Loc bag as if it’s evidence. He ponders my meekness and decides to smile.

After a half-hour wait outside the 7th floor courtroom, which I spend making conversation with a guy from “Entertainment Tonight,” the doors swing open. Family and official press get ushered in first. Then the rest of us are allowed to file in. I slide into a pewlike bench toward the back, directly behind four stiff-backed “members of the family,” though whose family is not clear, since there are three men on trial here: Sean “Puffy” Combs, Jamal “Shyne” Barrow and Anthony “Wolf” Jones.

I spot Johnnie Cochran’s bald spot — about 20 feet in front of me — right away. Even under the fluorescent lighting, he looks smooth. My first impression of Puffy, seated immediately to his left, between Cochran and his other lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, is more complicated.

It’s hard to reconcile my sense of Puffy the celebrity with this slender, ashen-faced fellow in the dark suit. Deprived of his entourage and out of his glitzy context, he just looks like a defendant. It’s unnerving.

Then he gets up, tall and slender in his oversize suit, and walks out into the audience, greeting and kissing a group of people — mostly women — directly opposite me. After some quick banter, he swaggers back through the low swinging panel that separates the audience from the action and takes his seat up front.

Before the jury comes out, one of the lawyers moves for a mistrial. A heated discussion about impeaching the credibility of a witness ensues. The D.A., Matthew Bogdanos, a trim fellow with a perky nose, barks a line about a trial being a search for truth, not gamesmanship. And Brafman snaps back, “I thought we would wait till 3 or 4 o’clock before Mr. Bogdanos got all wound up.”

Somehow the matter is settled, and the judge denies the motion for a mistrial. It is also agreed that Puffy’s bodyguard Anthony Jones, who, like his famous boss, stands accused of gun and bribery charges, should be referred as Mr. Jones and not “Wolf,” “unless the witness knows him by no other name.” And, after a brief discussion of ballistics and scientific proof, the jury files in and we move on.

Or try to move on.

The witness, Leonard Curtis Howard, a former corrections officer who moonlights as Puffy’s bodyguard, is nowhere to be found. He’s not outside the courtroom, where he was supposed to be at 9:30 a.m. (it is now past 10), nor is he answering his cellphone. Confusion ensues, but then, just as another witness is about to be called, Howard shows up.

He takes the stand and we learn A) that he’s “here to tell the truth,” B) that he saw Puffy looking “nervous and shocked” as well as “stunned and shocked” after the shots were fired in the crowded Club New York the night of Dec. 26, 1999, and C) that he once was accused and cleared of charges of possession of a stolen vehicle because “I had no knowledge of a stolen vehicle.” (He was, however, suspended by the department of corrections for six months.)

Before getting off the stand he gives his big sound bite, um, I mean, testimony. “For so long as I have known [Puffy], I have not known him to carry a firearm. If I had known, I would not have worked for him, because I would not put my job on the line.”

Then we take our midmorning break.

When I emerge from the ladies’ room, the hallway outside the courtroom is lined with people checking their cellphones and staring out the windows. I walk over to an empty spot by the window and start to do the same, when I suddenly tune into a strange conversation just a few feet away from me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Puffy talking to a slender, blond woman who has been sitting in the official press section. “I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job,” I hear him say. “I just wish you’d stop and think … we’re human beings.”

He’s been silent all morning in court. Is he now pleading for lenience from the only court that matters: the court of public opinion? Straining to hear more, I push random buttons on my cellphone and pretend to gaze intently out the window. But I can’t … quite … make out what he’s saying. I hear the phrase “human beings” a few more times. Frustrated and in need of both ears, I put down my cellphone and try to focus my eardrums, when — bam! — someone smacks down a bag made of combat cloth (!) right next to me, blocking my access to the Puffster and his friend.

“Hello!” says a husky voice.

“Hello,” I say, not immediately aware I’ve been caught.

“Who do you write for?” A standard enough question.

“Salon. You?”

I am Puffy’s publicist,” she says imperiously. “And I trust you are not standing here planning to report on my client’s conversation.” She has a clipped British accent.

“No, of course not,” I reflexively assure her. Removing my eyes from the scene outside the window only briefly (convinced it’s still my cover) to take a quick peep at her.

We exchange cards. She tells me she’ll put me on her distribution list, telegraphing the message, if you’re good.

Hell, the lady has a tough job.

By the time I allow myself to peel my eyes away from the window and turn around, nearly everyone — Puffy and his pal and his publicist included — has returned to the courtroom.

Somewhat shaken, I slink back, too.

Someone has taken my seat, so I slide into an empty seat one row up. Soon enough, the “members of the family” kick me out.

And I retreat to the back-row land of old men in colorful windbreakers who seem to make a second career of sitting in on trials. They smell sour, but they are nice to me.

For the rest of the morning, New York City Police Detective William Wallace, the crime scene expert on the case, testifies. We stare at holes in the wall — photos of the bullet impression marks in the ceiling and walls of the club, projected onto a monitor at the front of the room. Detective Wallace points at a floor plan of the club, indicating here and there, this and that.

The kid in front of me falls asleep. The old men leave.

We break for lunch. I walk two blocks to Chinatown and get the following message in my fortune cookie. “Many new friends will be attracted to your friendly and charming ways.”

After my run-in with Puffy’s publicist (I tell you, she scared me), I feel I could use some new friends, so I slip it into my wallet as I head back to court.

The detective again takes the stand. He has an unflattering cop haircut, but he seems smart. He seems honest. He answers questions. He points to the chart. He talks about bullets and shell casings.

But things are a little more exciting in the peanut gallery. A higher class of gaper has come out for the afternoon session. A young paralegal sits next to me. Two chic men and a chic woman slide into the pew in front of me. They’re excited, like they’re at a concert.

“There’s Johnnie Cochran!” they whisper. “That’s him!”

“And look at Puffy!”

One man puts his arm around the woman. She makes eyes at him. Love and romance seem oddly out of place in the courtroom.

I slip out for a minute and when I return there’s a line to go in.

There are two men in front of me. The larger, older one — he looks a little like Michael Clarke Duncan from “The Green Mile” and is carrying a legal-size manila folder — asks me if I’m a prosecutor.

“God, no,” I say, aware that, although he’s smiling at me, this is not a compliment. “What makes you say that?”

“You’ve got that innocent look,” he says. “There’s a lot of prosecutors out there look like you. They come on all nice and sweet, but look out. They’re sneaky. They’re out to get you.”

He says it genially. And, given what I actually do for a living, you could credit the guy with being a good judge of character.

The guy tells me the way he sees it: Puffy’s screwed. He’s been through the legal system himself, he tells me, and he knows what happens to black men at the hands of a jury, no matter how mixed.

“These days, there are a lot of conservative African-Americans,” he informs me. “You can’t depend on them.”

As he says this, he doesn’t seem at all bitter. He seems … happy. As we talk longer, I find out why. After a seven-year stay in prison, he’s been out for three days. He tells me that prison is not an easy place, that he studied theology while he was on the inside, that he spent a lot of time in the company of white men accused of sex crimes. “They got no friends,” he says. “No one will talk to them.”

I don’t ask him what he did, or why he’s here, back in a courtroom, on his third day out.

But after we are allowed to reenter the courtroom and are seated side by side, he leans over and whispers to me, “Puffy got a good jury. A real good jury. He might be OK.”

Then he’s gone and — thanks to my “friendly and charming ways” — I make a new friend, a fashionably (but casually) dressed white guy about my age. He’s wearing funky glasses. He lives nearby and figures he’ll stop in and watch the trial action from time to time. He, too, has an opinion of the jury.

“Isn’t it amazing?” he marvels. “There’s Puffy, this big celebrity, and here is this jury of nobodies — people who don’t even read the paper — who will decide his fate. Don’t you just love this country?”

I don’t know, but I’m happy he saves my seat for me during the next break and sorry to see him get kicked out for talking. (He had laughed a little too loudly when the last witness of the day, a cocktail waitress at Club New York, had revealed that Puffy was a lousy tipper — and the court guard whisked him away.)

Before he gets kicked out, he tells me about a moment I missed while I was out talking to my recently released friend. There was crying down the hall, loud crying — wailing. It disrupted the court. A guard was sent out to put a stop to it, but he returned only shaking his head.

“Verdict,” he explained.

And the courtroom went silent. “It was like suddenly everyone — even Puffy — realized it wasn’t a game,” says my talkative new friend.

After the trial is over, I go pick up my tape recorder and run into a reporter I’ve met before, who writes for a hip-hop Web site. He thinks Puffy’s getting a bad rap.

“Bogdanos has a hard-on for him,” the reporter says. “He’s going after rappers. For him, it’s personal.”

Pondering the justice — or injustice — of it all, I walk out of the building into the stark flicker of flashbulbs. Puffy’s lawyer is standing at a microphone, giving his statement. I stand directly behind him — dazzled by the camera lights, immobilized by the crush of people — while he puts on the show the cameramen have been waiting for.

Then, I find my way out of the crowd — and home.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Miss something? Read yesterday’s Nothing Personal.

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