Snoop Doggy Dogg Trial: 1995-96

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Snoop Doggy Dogg Trial: 1995-96

Defendants: Calvin Broadus, McKinley Lee
Crimes Charged: Murder, voluntary manslaughter, conspiracy to commit assault; accessory to murder after the fact (Broadus)
Chief Defense Lawyers: Broadus: David Kenner, Marcia Morrissey; Lee: Donald Re Chief Prosecutors: Edward Nison, Robert Grace
Judge: Paul G. Flynn
Place: Los Angeles, California
Date of Trial: November 27, 1995-February 21, 1996
Verdict: Not guilty of murder, assault, and accessory charges; mistrial on voluntary manslaughter charges

SIGNIFICANCE: The arrest of Calvin Broadus a.k.a. Snoop Doggy Dogg for murder coincided with his ascendancy as the most popular rap music star in the United States. The case also fueled a general debate over whether "gangster rap" contributed to or merely reflected gunplay, drug abuse, sexual violence, street gang warfare, and other social ills.

In the afternoon of August 25, 1993, rising rap star Calvin Broadus, better known as Snoop Doggy Dogg, heard a commotion in the street outside his Los Angeles apartment. As Broadus watched, his bodyguard McKinley "Malik" Lee went outside to investigate. Lee found a carload of street gang members arguing with Sean Abrams, one of Broadus's friends. Lee's appearance ended the argument, but as the car departed, Broadus thought he recognized one of the occupants as a man who had recently accosted him with a pistol at a video filming. The gang member was Philip Woldemariam, a 20-year-old Ethiopian immigrant.

A Rising Rap Star

Later that day, with Lee and Abrams accompanying him, Broadus was driving his Jeep past a park when he encountered Woldemariam again. Accounts of the encounter would differ, but there was no dispute over the fact that Lee shot and mortally wounded Woldemariam. Police found Woldemariam's bloody corpse in a nearby carport. Murder charges were filed against Broadus, Lee, and Abrams, all of whom had disappeared into hiding. While Broadus's attorney negotiated the terms of a surrender and bail, the rap star appeared at a televised music awards ceremony on September 2 and shouted his innocence to a cheering audience. He turned himself in later that night.

The killing occurred as Broadus's alter ego, Snoop Doggy Dogg, was becoming the most popular rap star in America. His debut album, Doggystyle, released several months after the shooting incident, sold over five million copies. One of its songs, "Murder Was the Charge" was promoted heavily by his record label in a video that featured Snoop as a man who kills someone in self-defense, but is convicted of murder. The notoriety of Snoop Dogg's impending trial fed his celebrity and attracted the ire of critics who blamed "gangster rap" for glorifying the gang-related violence plaguing urban communities. Rap artists responded that their work was an accurate reflection of existing mayhem, not its inspiration. Although he was concentrating on his musical career at the time of the Woldemariam shooting, Broadus had served prison time for selling crack cocaine and had been a member of the Long Beach Insane Crips, a longestablished Los Angeles street gang. Woldemariam belonged to an upstart gang called the Yerself Hustlers. Police theorized that the shooting incident was just one more of thousands of fatal gang-related confrontations. Other observers proposed that the Woldemariam shooting was a case of Snoop Dogg's life imitating his art.

Murder Was the Charge

Charges against Sean Abrams were dropped by the time the case came to court over two years later. When testimony began on November 27, 1995, the trial immediately centered on the conduct of the Los Angeles Police Department, whose alleged mishandling of evidence in the recently decided O.J. Simpson murder trial had been cited as a major reason for Simpson's controversial acquittal. Prosecutor Edward Nisson tried to minimize any damage to his case by admitting in opening statements that some evidence, including Woldemariam's bloody clothing, a bullet, and a shell casing, had disappeared while in police possession. Jurors, who had been examined about any negative impressions the Simpson case might have had on their opinion of the city's justice system, rolled their eyes at Nison's admissions. Despite the police department's mistakes, Nison persistently argued that Broadus and Lee had hunted down Woldemariam over a gang-related insult and had shot him in the back.

The prosecution's problems were not confined to the missing evidence. The defense held that Lee had fired only in self-defense when Woldemariam ran toward Broadus's Jeep while reaching for a gun in his waistband. Yet no gun had been found on Woldemariam's body. Two fellow gang members who had witnessed the shooting initially told police that the dead man had been unarmed when Lee shot him. By the time the trial began, they recanted their stories and admitted that they had hidden a pistol Woldemariam had been carrying. Defense attorney David Kenner seized the opportunity to discredit the incriminating testimony upon which the murder indictments relied so heavily. Kenner grilled prosecution witness Jason London, who admitted that he and fellow gang member Dushaun Joseph had hidden Woldemariam's gun. London denied that he and Joseph had taken the weapon to make Woldemariam appear to have been a defenseless victim or that they had tried to incriminate Lee and Broadus by denying the gun's existence to police. Nevertheless, the defense had succeeded in bringing this implication before the jury. London also admitted that Woldemariam had a reputation for irrational behavior and that Broadus had played no part in the earlier confrontation at his apartment complex.

The prosecution ridiculed claims that Lee had used his gun to protect himself and Broadus. In the prosecution's scenario, the location of Woldemariam's wounds proved that he was an innocent victim. A Los Angeles County medical examiner was called to confirm that Woldemariam had been shot in the back and buttocks. Under cross-examination, however, the examiner admitted that his report noted that the wounds were "lateral," implying that the bullets that hit Woldemariam traveled sideways through his body, not necessarily from back to front.

Jury Frees Snoop Dogg

On February 20, 1996, after six days of deliberations, the jury returned not guilty verdicts on the murder charges against Broadus and Lee. The defendants sat silently as their supporters cheered, causing Judge Paul Flynn to threaten to clear the courtroom. The jury remained deadlocked on the voluntary manslaughter and accessory charges. On February 21, jurors acquitted Broadus on the accessory charge, but informed Judge Flynn that they remained deadlocked 9-3 in favor of acquittal on the voluntary manslaughter charge and could not agree. Judge Flynn declared a mistrial.

Snoop Dogg expressed his relief at being allowed to return to his career, unhampered by the electronic surveillance ankle bracelet he was ordered to wear after his indictment. The Los Angeles District Attorney's Office declined to try Broadus or Lee a second time on the unresolved voluntary manslaughter charges, but legal issues remained. Woldemariam's family filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against Broadus. The suit was confidentially settled out of court for an undisclosed sum in August 1996, nearly three years to the day Woldemariam died.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Dogg, Snoop, with David Seay. Tha Doggfather. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1999.

Pertman, Adam. "Simpson Case Comparisons As Rap Star Goes on Trial." Boston Globe (November 27, 1995): 21.

Senna, Danzy and Fleming, Charles. "A New Star Gets a Murder Rap." Newsweek (September 20, 1993): 54.

White, Michael. "Jury Clears Rapper and Bodyguard of Murder Charge." Associated Press (February 21, 1996).