April 02, 2001 12:00 PM

On March 16, which would turn out to be the final day of Sean “Puffy” Combs’s seven-week trial on charges of bribery and gun possession, his mother, Janice, arrived at the lower Manhattan courthouse with her son, apparently determined to outdo him in sartorial splendor. Asked to describe her cream-colored hat and tan suede suit, Janice, 60, said, “It’s going to be a good day. It’s a victory outfit.”

And so it was. At 6:40 p.m., after three days of deliberations, the seven-man, five-woman jury announced its verdicts. Combs, the 31-year-old hip-hop mogul, was found not guilty of brandishing a gun during a December 1999 melee at Club New York, the Times Square nightspot where he was partying with then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez when shots were fired, wounding three people. Nor were Combs and codefendant Anthony “Wolf” Jones, 35, the bodyguard with whom Puffy and Lopez fled the club in Combs’s Lincoln Navigator SUV, found guilty of offering a $50,000 bribe to the driver, Wardel Fenderson. The prosecution’s star witness, Fenderson, 42, testified that Combs had urged him to claim ownership of a stolen 9mm semiautomatic pistol that police found under the SUV’s front seat after an 11-block chase.

The jury didn’t buy Fenderson’s story. But it did convict a third defendant, rap star and Puffy protégé Jamal “Shyne” Barrow, 22, who had wildly fired his own semiautomatic into the air after another club patron had “dissed” Combs by flinging a wad of cash at him. Barrow, found guilty on several charges, faces 25 years in prison. Combs, who could have received up to 15 years, instead got hugs from his jubilant attorneys Benjamin Brafman and Johnnie Cochran. (“He’s more like a son to me,” said Cochran, who defended O.J. Simpson, of his latest celebrity client. “I sweated right with him this whole time.”) Then mother and son embraced. At a press conference Combs thanked Janice “for being by my side every day in the courtroom.”

Combs, who carried a green leather-bound copy of the New Testament into court every day, had thanks to bestow elsewhere as well. “I give all glory to God,” he said. “If it wasn’t for God, I wouldn’t be able to walk out here to talk to you all today.” Instead of partying with friends after the verdict, Combs attended a private service at the Love Fellowship Tabernacle with Janice, his sister Keisha, 29, and his two sons—Justin, 7, by ex-girlfriend Misa Hylton-Brim, and Christian, 3, by model Kim Porter, with whom he broke up in 1999. There they heard the story of Lazarus rising from the dead.

Though perhaps not quite as blessed, “Puffy is a survivor,” says Vibe editor-in-chief Emil Wilbekin. “He has managed to get out of a lot of sticky situations and always end up on top.” After allegedly bashing fellow recording executive Steven Stoute with a champagne bottle in April 1999, in fact, Combs avoided trial by apologizing to Stoute and enrolling in a court-ordered anger-management course. The Club New York shooting on Dec. 27, 1999, was harder to finesse, and there were personal complications as well. “I felt responsible” for Lopez’s being there, Combs told The New York Times in an interview published a day after the trial. “It wasn’t her idea to go dancing.” Nor was she planning to spend 14 hours in a police station, where she reportedly blew up at Combs before being released. But Lopez, 31, who broke up with him earlier this year, was never called as a witness—a point attorney Brafman emphasized in his closing argument to the jury on March 12. “Do you think [prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos] would have hesitated a second,” he asked, “if she’d had one bit of incriminating evidence against Mr. Combs?”

“He beat it,” Bogdanos later told the New York Daily News. “What can I say? Justice did not win in this case.”

Combs’s legal battles are far from over, however. The three club patrons Barrow was accused of wounding—two of whom testified that Puffy, too, was armed that night—are suing him for millions in damages.

That, in a way, is testimony to his very deep pockets. During his 59 days in court Combs, who reportedly spent $1 million on his defense and was on his cell phone constantly during breaks, managed to oversee a $300-million-plus empire. His girl band Dream’s debut album recently went platinum; his R&B group 112 has a hit single, “It’s Over Now.” And in February he threw a gala fashion show for his Sean John clothing line. Still, “I think this [trial] has changed him,” says Johnnie Cochran. “I think he’s going to be more careful.”

Combs seconds that. “I’ve grown up a lot in the last year,” he said after his acquittal. “I don’t ever want to be in something like this again.”

Michael A. Lipton

Bob Meadows and Sharon Cotliar in New York City

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