Rap impresario Sean ''Puffy'' Combs was acquitted Friday (March 16) of toting an illegal handgun into a crowded Manhattan hip-hop club by a jury that believed the Grammy-winning multimillionaire's rep

Rap impresario Sean ''Puffy'' Combs was acquitted Friday (March 16) of toting an illegal handgun into a crowded Manhattan hip-hop club by a jury that believed the Grammy-winning multimillionaire's repeated claim of innocence. He was also cleared of a bribery charge. When the verdict was read, Combs and his attorneys hugged tightly, with lawyers Benjamin Brafman and Johnnie Cochran burying their heads against Combs' shoulder.

Combs' bodyguard, Anthony ''Wolf'' Jones, was acquitted of the same charges as his boss. Rapper Jamal ''Shyne'' Barrow, a Combs protege who had been charged with attempted murder, was instead convicted of two counts of assault in connection with the shooting of two people in the club, following a scuffle involving the Combs entourage in the early morning hours of Dec. 27, 1999.

It was a stunning victory for Combs, 31, who presides over a $300 million empire -- Bad Boy Entertainment -- that encompasses music, movies, clothing and restaurants. He founded the company just seven years ago.

The high-profile trial stretched nearly seven weeks, with jurors hearing from 59 witnesses and examining more than 130 pieces of evidence. Combs dressed in a conservative dark suit each day of the trial and his mother was in the gallery behind him.

Combs was the key defense witness, spending a full day testifying that he never carried a weapon on the night of his arrest and instead thought he was the target. ''I thought I was being shot at,'' he told the jury.

He also denied offering his driver a $50,000 bribe if the man would take the gun possession rap for Combs. Prosecutors said the collateral Combs offered was a diamond pinkie ring given to him by ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, the top-selling singer/musician.

The driver, Wardell Fenderson, told the jury that Combs tucked a black handgun into his waistband before heading over with Lopez to the hip-hop hotspot Club New York. The two arrived a little past midnight on Dec. 27 after the limousine trip from the East Hampton region. The couple had spent the day after Christmas at his $2.5 million Long Island home.

Combs testified that he had expected to party for a while and do a little networking with other music industry types inside the nightclub just west of Times Square. But trouble began as Combs tried to exit the club shortly after 2:30 a.m. Someone bumped into Matthew ''Scar'' Allen, an oft-arrested New Yorker at the club that night. After an exchange of insults, another man tossed a fistful of dollar bills at Combs.

Three to six shots then rang out inside the club, sending panicked club-goers diving to the floor or charging toward the exits. Three people were wounded: Natania Rueben was shot in her face, while Robert Thompson and Julius Jones were hit in their shoulders. Reuben still has seven bullet fragments in her head and Jones has a bullet lodged near his spine.

Nine witnesses later said they saw Barrow with a gun. Two of the shooting victims testified they also saw Combs with a gun. Barrow was accused of shooting the victims, but he was charged with a single attempted murder count because he was just shooting at one person. Prosecutors said Barrow missed his intended target.

Reuben, a Brooklyn hairdresser, was the first witness to say Combs fired a gun, an assertion contradicted by defense witnesses.

Combs fled the club with Lopez, Jones, and driver Fenderson in his Lincoln Navigator. They were stopped 11 blocks away after Fenderson steered the SUV onto a sidewalk to evade a police car and then ran several red lights.

A 9 mm handgun police found in the SUV and a similar weapon that was allegedly hurled out of the window during the chase led to gun possession charges against Combs and Jones. Lopez was initially arrested, but never charged.

The same charges were dropped against Fenderson when he agreed to testify against the others. In stilted speech laced with malapropisms, he said his wild driving was caused by fear of the gun-toting Combs and Jones. Fenderson, who twice told police that he owned the gun before recanting, also detailed the alleged bribe offer.

Lopez was never called to testify despite a promise to appear if Combs needed her. The superstar told the grand jury that she never saw Combs with a gun on the night of the shooting.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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