Criminal defense attorney Benjamin Brafman, 56, remembers when he became an overnight celebrity. No, it wasn’t when his withering cross-examination of the star witness single-handedly destroyed the case against the client. He’s done that more than he cares to count.
Actually, it happened two years ago when a very relieved Shawn Carter, aka Jay Z (who recently received three years probation instead of a possible 15-year prison sentence for the stabbing of record exec-turned movie director, Lance “Un” Rivera) showed his gratitude by immortalizing his lawyer on wax:
“Coverage on Centre Street / Got Brafman defendin’ me / ‘Cause NY will miss me / If I’m locked in a penitentiary,” Jay Z raps on the 2002 song “Welcome To New York City.”
Brafman memorized the lyrics and can even recite them – you’ve got to see it to believe it. “I don’t know how many White, Jewish lawyers get an honorable mention on a Jay Z song,” he says. Excluding Brafman? None. “I admire Jay Z’s work,” he continues. “Here’s someone who came out of Marcy Projects and used his talent to become a gazillionaire.” It’s the sort of rose-that-grew from concrete tale that Brafman loves – perhaps because he too has lived it.
Brash. Arrogant. Ruthless. He’s been called just about everything (“A tough sonofabitch,” adds Brafman). Seared into the mind of the public has been the image of a dapper tough-guy with more hand gestures than Joe Pesci, standing before a bevy of reporters on the courthouse steps stridently denouncing the “baseless claims” against his client. “Outside of professional sports, what I do is really the only profession where you’re performing live on stage without a script,” says Brafman. “Except in my case, the stakes involve human lives.”
His clientele includes the rich, the famous, and the oh-so infamous – like mafia hitman Anthony Senter (murder), nighclub impresario Peter Gatien (drug racketeering) and more recently, Michael Jackson’s 2005 child abuse case in which he was cleared on all counts. Clearly, the man likes a challenge.
New York has seen its share of colorful defense attorneys through the years. But after successfully defending Sean “P-Diddy” Combs against gun possession and bribery charges in 2001, and helping Jay Z strike a plea deal, Brafman has attained something most of them, save his good friend, Johnnie Cochran can only dream of – street cred via hip-hop.
Yet even in 2004, Page Six sightings of Brafman, at a Sean John party still raise eyebrows. “Just the other day, a reporter wondered how someone like me could relate to a rap star,” he says.
Is this middle-aged, Orthodox Jewish man, who specializes in white-collar crime, a fish out of water in the Hip-Hop world? Brafman bristles at this question. And to understand why, go back to his years growing up on the streets of Brooklyn.
By the 1960s, white flight was in full-effect as Black families moved into working class neighborhoods like Crown Heights. Yet the Brafman household welcomed change. “My grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz and my parents survived the Holocaust. I was taught that discrimination was wrong, so I had both Black and White friends. We didn’t have difficulty relating to each other,” remembers Brafman.
Despite the lesson in fairness, Brafman had no ambitions to be a lawyer: “A lot of people in my generation went to law school because it gave you another three years to decide what you really wanted to do.” He put himself through night school at Brooklyn College and enrolled at Ohio Northern University Law School.
For his first gig, Brafman hustled his way into a Manhattan-based criminal defense firm. Two years later during New York’s gritty ’70s era, he got one of the most highly-sought jobs inside the Manhattan D.A.’s Office, where he prosecuted organized crime and labor racketeering. Nothing, though, could stop Brafman from breaking out on his own.
Rejecting six-figure salary offers from large firms, Brafman borrowed $15,000 from his grandfather-in-law to launch his own start-up. “I figured I’d try it for six months and if it didn’t work out, I’d take a corporate job.”
Nearly twenty-five years later, Brafman is one of a handful of attorneys you’d better call if you’re a public figure in hot water. He returned to criminal defense during the 1980s as a wave of mob cases hit the courts, courtesy of then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani.
Brafman skillfully used transcripts of FBI wiretap recordings to score back-to-back acquittals. One client, Anthony Senter, was later convicted on murder and firearms charges, but Brafman won respect as a dogged attorney.
Yet critics, and even some admirers, say his rep has been tainted by the mob cases. To his day, media accounts report that Brafman represented mafia underboss Salvatore “Sammy The Bull” Gravano. “I never tried a case on his behalf. It’s an inappropriate reference to a relationship that lasted no longer than three weeks,” insists Brafman.
Asked about defending unsavory characters, Brafman (who draws the line at terrorism cases) says “most criminal defense attorneys know they’re often representing someone who has done something wrong.” Still, Brafman adds that “he didn’t want to be tagged as a mob lawyer” and moved on to equally controversial cases.
Take the case of Yusuf Hawkins, the Black teenager murdered during a savage attack by a mob of White youths in Bensonhurst in 1989. Brafman was swept into the storm when he defended James Patino, one of the men charged with Hawkins’ murder. “It was a horrific crime, but James did not participate,” says Brafman. Patino was the only defendant acquitted. “Everyone, including a jury with six African-Americans, knew he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He could have been one of those innocent black kids they used to round up whenever a white woman was raped.”
Brafman might seem like someone constantly bruising for a fight, but he also craves moments of clarity outside of the courtroom. He’s in the gym three times-a-week, working out to favorite jams by the Notorious B.I.G. and Aaliyah.
He travels to Israel often with his wife, Lynda, a librarian, to visit grandchildren. And unknown to most, Brafman donates to numerous cause, from the Israel Cancer Research Fund (his wife is a breast cancer survivor) to local schools and the YMCA. “Giving back is something I was always taught to do,” he says humbly.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Brafman is his sense of humor. Before the start of the 1992 trial that convicted John Gotti, the late mafia don, to life in prison, Brafman was recruited to review the damaging FBI wiretap recordings. “Gotti asked me what kind of juries I thought his lawyer should get for the trial. I said they should get as many deaf people as possible. For a second, there was a deafening silence, and I didn’t know if I was going to leave the room. Then he smiled, pounded the table, and broke out laughing,” says Brafman.
In January, Brafman captured headlines by joining Michael Jackson’s legal team in the ongoing child molestation case. But the marriage was doomed from the start. And three months later, he was off the case. “I’m not a ‘yes man.’ I tell you what I think is right and you follow my advice. If I tell you something and you say, ‘Let me give you my idea’ and it’s a suicide mission, my position is see ya later.” But no case has defined Brafman’s career more than that of Sean “P-Diddy” Combs.
In December 1999, Combs, then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez and rapper Jamal “Shyne” Barrow, were arrested after three people were shot inside Club New York. Johnnie Cochran recruited Brafman to represent Combs, who faced 15 years in prison on gun possession and bribery charges.
In his opening statement, Brafman declared, “This case is not about rap music. It’s about a bum rap.” After a brutal two-month trial, Combs was cleared on all charges. Moments after the verdict, Brafman wept and openly hugged Combs: “Sean was completely innocent of all charges and I’m as proud of that case as any I’ve had in 30 years.”
The case returned to the spotlight recently when Shyne, currently serving a 10-year prison sentence on assault charges, railed against Combs and Brafman in the press. Shyne says he fired the gun in self-defense to protect Combs and faults Brafman for sealing his fate. “To suggest that Shyne is in prison because of something Puffy did or did not do is an absolute lie,” says Brafman. “Shyne should have pled guilty since the evidence against him was overwhelming.”
Ask Brafman about Combs and a warm glow crosses his face. “I love him. Despite our different backgrounds, we understand each other. Many people think all Sean does is party, and he knows how to party better than anyone alive, but he also works incredibly hard.”
Two years ago, Combs paid an emotional tribute to Brafman (whom Diddy calls “Uncle Benny”) while presenting him with a Racial Harmony Award from the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
Meanwhile, with more rappers entangled in the criminal justice system, it may not be long before Brafman is defending another high-profile star.
Yet despite reports of covert Hip-Hop police squads from New York to Miami, Brafman is skeptical: “Since 9/11, there’s a greater need for police resources beyond following some R&B singer around to his next gig, so I’m not certain it’s going on anymore.”
Nevertheless, Brafman is prepared to fight for some of society’s most notorious figures, from corporate execs to your favorite MCs. “People don’t understand how much of your soul is thrown into your work. Being a great criminal lawyer requires having compassion for the people you represent.”
This appeared in YRB Magazine’s DUOS Issue in 2004.