The trial of rap moguls Irv and Christopher Gotti ended Friday with shouts, tears and an outbreak of mass hugging after both men were found not guilty of money laundering.
Family members and well-wishers who had packed one side of the courtroom roared and cried as the jury foreman said "not guilty" over and over. A court clerk warned the revelers to keep it down until the jury left the room.
"Now you can holla," the clerk said once the last juror filed out.
And holla they did. The Gottis, founders of a once-successful rap label called Murder Inc. -- since renamed The Inc. -- hugged each other, their lawyers and then dozens of other people, nearly all of whom were wet-eyed. Ja Rule, one of The Inc.'s biggest stars, leaped onto a courtroom bench and all but jumped into Irv Gotti's arms. Even two of the jurors asked that the brothers visit a back room so they could embrace the pair.
"They took my life from me for three years," Irv Gotti said, referring to federal prosecutors and their investigation. "I just want my life back."
Both men were facing up to 20 years in prison for taking "dirty, filthy street money," as Assistant U.S. Attorney Carolyn Pokorny called it, from a notorious drug dealer and gang leader named Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff. He and his underlings allegedly dropped shoe boxes stuffed with bills at the Manhattan headquarters of Murder Inc. The Gotti brothers pumped $65,000 into a straight-to-video movie called "Crime Partners," an investment the government portrayed as a scam designed to help McGriff cover up the source of his funding in the event of an audit.
Irv, 35, and Christopher, 38, denied it all. They readily admitted being friends with McGriff, who was a criminal legend in the '80s in Queens, where the Gottis -- then named Lorenzo -- grew up. But they said that their film venture was a legitimate attempt to make a profit and that all the stacks-of-cash stories were false. They claimed, too, that associating with McGriff was good for business because it brought the label street cachet.
The jury believed them.
"The prosecutors had nothing, nothing, nothing," said juror Gloria Menzies, 60, one of the two who had requested some hug time with the Gottis. She spoke on the sidewalk near the courthouse while holding the hand of Ja Rule, who was smoking a cigar and grinning. "Everything was hearsay."
That might overstate it, but the case against the Gottis was pretty flimsy. When the brothers were indicted in January, the government alleged that Murder Inc. was secretly controlled by McGriff. At trial, prosecutors never tried to prove that. The government did offer plenty of evidence that money flowed from the Gottis to McGriff, but as the defense team pointed out, it's not a crime to give money to a criminal. ("Guilty by association," they kept calling it.) Missing were the sort of bank records you would expect in a case like this -- a gotcha deposit followed by a gotcha check.
Instead, the heart of the prosecution's case consisted of a lot of chummy text-message traffic between McGriff and the Gottis and a procession of unsavory witnesses, some of whom are in prison. One was a former pimp. Another witness, one of McGriff's violent henchmen, admitted that he'd tried to kill one of his boss's girlfriends when she refused to have an abortion.
The government was also up against defense attorney Gerald Shargel, who is to sarcasm what Toscanini was to classical music -- a maestro. He heaped so much scorn on the prosecution during his summation Wednesday that the laughs from the pro-Gotti side of the courtroom prompted the judge to threaten to bounce the audience out of the room.
It probably didn't hurt, either, that the Gottis had a few celebrities in their corner. Rappers Jay-Z and Fat Joe came to the trial, as did Def Jam executive Russell Simmons. Ashanti, another of Irv Gotti's discoveries, was on hand for closing arguments. She nibbled on Twizzlers and signed a few autographs.
Still, the jury took two full days to deliberate. The Gottis paced for hours on Thursday and Friday. Irv kneaded a silver chain with a giant "V" as though it were a set of worry beads.
Jurors started out Thursday by voting 10 to 2 for acquittal, Menzies said. They announced that they had reached a verdict right at 6 o'clock Friday evening, as everyone in the courtroom was putting on their coats and getting ready to head home for the night.
The Gottis -- who took the surname of infamous Queens mobster John Gotti -- never testified and didn't speak to reporters during the trial, but they couldn't stop talking once the verdict was read. Irv left the federal courthouse at Cadman Plaza screaming, flanked by his lawyers. He quickly turned serious, then angry.
"I would never have worked this hard," he said, facing a scrum of television cameras and yelling for emphasis, "and jeopardize it by doing something stupid and illegal."
Christopher Gotti took a lower-key approach, hugging his family and whatever jurors happened to show up for this sidewalk festival. Asked if he planned to start using his real last name, he shrugged.
"I started using the name Gotti because my brother used it, and when I called anyone and said, 'This is Christopher Lorenzo,' nobody knew who I was," he said. "To tell you the truth, I was never that into it."