The Suge Knight Trial: Down The Rabbit Hole We Go

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[These trial updates will make a whole lot more sense if you read my feature about Suge Knight in Esquire UK this month]

The Suge Knight trial was meant to be over by now. July 7th was the original date for the great unveiling of what actually happened on Jan 29th at Tam’s Burgers in Compton. We were going to find out if “Big Homey” was going to grow old in prison.

But instead we’re back at the beginning again. Talking about his bail again; another hearing’s set for July 17th. What happened was “Big Homey” fired his old attorney, Matthew Fletcher, having fired James Blatt and then former Death Row attorney David Kenner before him. You just can’t find the help these days. And the new guy, Tom Mesereau, best known for defending Michael Jackson in 2005, asked for more time to prepare. So it’ll be a while yet: September 17th.

But let me back up.  The 7th was a fitful day in court, procedural and finicky, one of those incremental skirmishes in the build up to the main event. The bail and preliminary hearings are like the press conference and the weigh-in before a prize fight. They give attorneys a chance to flex, maybe gain an edge, psychological or otherwise. And by those terms, Knight had a mixed showing.

On the one hand, he looked fitter, not so sickly and vulnerable as before. “He’s getting his weight back, it’s good to see,” his sister Karen said. “We saw him for July 4th and he was laughing. He’s always strong. The other week, he stopped eating because someone on his block got AIDS and he thought his sandwich was being tampered with. I was like noooo!”

But court wasn’t going his way. He wanted to move the case from Downtown to Compton, to get a more sympathetic jury, but Judge Ronald Coen said no. He also wanted the case thrown out altogether on the grounds that he hadn’t been properly identified as the defendant at the prelims, but that was smacked down too – only by a different judge this time, Judge Stephen Marcus. That’s the kind of day it was. We all had to up and leave court 101 and walk next door to court 102, and then march back again afterwards, families of the accused and the deceased victim watching their shoes as they passed each other in narrow doorways.

“That’s OK,” Mesereau told me afterwards. “Judges have to appear strong in these high profile trials ever since OJ. That’s why Lance Ito never made it to the court of appeals.”

There was one moment, however, when we got a glimmer of what simmers beneath all the procedural verbiage of this case. It was when Mesereau stood up, his mane as white as a beacon, and addressed Judge Stephen Marcus with a few plain facts.

(To refresh your memory, Suge drove into Tam’s Burgers, thinking he was going to discuss his fee for the movie Straight Outta Compton – which uses his likeness – but instead he walked into an ambush. Cle “Bone” Sloan attacked Suge as he sat in his truck, punching him through an open window. Sloan was almost certainly armed. Suge lurched the vehicle backwards and then drove away, running two people over, killing one, Terry Carter. He claims self-defense, the prosecution claims murder.)

Mesereau said: “We’ve got someone driving a truck alone and unarmed. He suffers a violent assault that has been captured on tape. But the prosecution calls as a witness the man who committed the assault. He answers questions in a very evasive manner – first he pleads the fifth, then the prosecutor offers him immunity. This is the assailant. So there are tremendous credibility issues and problems with facts… I think it’s an outrage.”

Mesereau isn’t known for emotive language. In his landmark defense of Michael Jackson in 2005, he was all precision and cool control. But Mesereau was saying what Matthew Fletcher had been saying before him, which is that something is off about this case. It doesn’t smell right.

Here’s some questions:

A man is attacked in a parking lot, on camera, but the Sheriff and the District Attorney choose to protect the attacker (Sloan), and charge the victim, (Knight). Why?

They gave Sloan immunity in order to testify, but when he got on the stand during the preliminary hearings, Sloan was clearly not telling the truth – he even refused to admit that he recognized Suge Knight, the most recognizable person in the courtroom. Is lying under oath not a crime?

Is it relevant that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department is under investigation now for its abuse of prisoners at Men’s Central Jail, where they’re holding Knight?

And above all, why did Sloan attack Knight that day? What did he have to gain?

We have no satisfactory answers as yet, but that’s what trials are for. As you read this, investigators prowl the streets of Compton collecting interviews while lawyers in LA and Sacramento pore through documents and serve subpoenas. There have been rumors along the way of another video that’s going around Compton, shot on a cellphone by one of the men at the ambush. It’s said that witnesses may yet be called who can attest to men at the Tam’s ambush standing there with guns drawn.

But let’s see how this shakes out. Not everything that’s rumored comes to pass, in this case at least. Floyd Mayweather was supposed to pony up $10 million for Knight’s bail after the Pacquiao fight, but that never happened. And what to make of this morsel that appeared in a summary of an interview that Knight gave to Sheriffs on the night that he handed himself in? “Knight described an on-going business dispute between him and Dre. Dre was involved in a large business deal with Apple worth a billion dollars and Knight was promised 10 percent by Dre. Knight believed he was owed 300 million dollars from Dre.”

(The New York Times quoted from this in its piece of June 8th. I would have quoted liberally from this interview in my Esquire piece, but the laws are different in England. Only material that has be cited in open court apparently.)

Knight hasn’t explained why Dre might owe him. His counsel hasn’t brought it up, contracts haven’t been produced, and all attempts to reach Dre to date have been unsuccessful. And anyway, people say the damndest things when a couple of Sheriffs are accusing them of murder.

But this is a story about money. Perhaps some long standing “beef” between Sloan and Knight – what Judge Marcus called “a soap opera” – played a part in this tragedy. But there’s more going on. Suge wanted to be paid for Straight Outta Compton – he would never have gone to Tam’s otherwise. Sloan admitted in the preliminary hearing that he had $2000 in cash on him that fateful day. Why so much? And the Carter family – the family of the deceased – has sued Universal (as well as Dr Dre and Ice Cube) for negligent hiring, by engaging the likes of Sloan as part of the security for the production. There could well be money to be made here – without Sloan’s initial attack, none of this would have happened. As he told police in his first interview, “it’s fucked up ’cause I was the aggressor.” And the mere threat of deposing these millionaires, asking them all kinds of awkward questions about their finances, their relationships, is probably enough to persuade them to settle out of court. But why has the civil case been filed before the criminal case has been settled?

I’m probably a little too interested in this case. It has all these elements – gangland, hip hop, Apple, Hollywood, fiction resembling fact resembling fiction, legal shenanigans, a shadowy Sheriff’s department… I can’t resist it. It’s the ultimate LA story. So if you want to join me down the rabbit hole, I can show you some material that you may not see elsewhere.

Stay tuned.

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