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Rap Played a Role in Jury Deliberations : Trial: Jurors say gangsta rap music was a significant factor in the murder of a Texas state trooper. But it wasn't enough of a factor to cause them to lessen the killer's sentence.

July 16, 1993|CHUCK PHILIPS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Austin, Tex., jury that sentenced a Texas teen-ager to death Wednesday for murdering a state trooper rejected his claim that violent rap music caused him to pull the trigger--but the jurors did believe the music influenced his action.

"Rap reinforced the way the defendant lived and glorified his attitudes about gangs and violence and his hatred toward police," said Robert Muraida, the jury member who for six days tried to persuade his fellow jurors to reduce the sentence of Ronald Ray Howard, 19, to life imprisonment because he felt Howard's underprivileged background as well as the music were "crucial" mitigating factors in the crime. "The music was not a minor issue in this case."

Indeed, lawyers on both sides, who met with all 12 jurors in a closed-door session after the verdict, confirmed Thursday that rap music played a significant role during the jury's lengthy deliberation and on two occasions nearly tipped the balance in favor of the lesser life sentence.

Howard's court-appointed attorney Allen Tanner, who said he intends to appeal the case within two weeks, said there was "no doubt" that the jury believed gangsta rap "figured big" in the shooting. Jackson County Dist. Atty. Robert E. (Bobby) Bell, who argued successfully for the death penalty during his prosecution of Howard's case, concurred.

"I talked to the jury at length and each and every one of them said gangsta rap music influenced Howard in killing that state trooper," Bell said in a telephone interview from Austin. "They just did not feel that the music reduced Ronald Ray Howard's blameworthiness for the crime."

The capital murder case caused an uproar in the entertainment community last year after Howard told authorities he was listening to a homemade copy of Oakland rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur's violence-laced "2PACALYPSE NOW" album during the homicide.

Muraida's comments about the role rap played in the homicide heightens the drama expected to grow out of the second phase of the murder: a multimillion-dollar lawsuit suit filed last year by the slain trooper's widow, Linda Sue Davidson, against Shakur and his record label, Los Angeles-based Interscope Records.

The April, 1992, shooting of Bill Davidson, 43, occurred after the trooper pulled Howard over in rural east Texas to issue him a ticket for a missing headlight. The jury took just 40 minutes last month to convict the 19-year-old parolee of capital murder.

Howard's attorney, however, tried to persuade the jury in the five-week punishment phase of the trial to give Howard life in prison instead of death, blaming angry music by Shakur and other prominent rap artists for "hyping Howard up" to commit the homicide.

The civil suit--which also names Interscope's parent company, Time Warner, as a defendant--charges that the label and the rap artist were grossly negligent in manufacturing and distributing music that incites "imminent lawless action." That case is scheduled to reach trial in December.

If the widow's attorneys can convince a jury that rap music influenced Howard's actions in shooting the trooper, the widow could be awarded damages, legal experts say. The music doesn't have to be determined to be the sole cause of the shooting, they added. Representatives of Time Warner could not be reached for comment.

Tanner and Bell refused to comment on specifics of the deliberations, but sources close to the case said testimony by music experts and other witnesses who suggested that Howard had been "brainwashed" by "cop-killing" rap music was deemed credible by the jury.

Muraida's support for a life sentence during the six days of deliberation forced the jury to send two notes to State District Judge Whayland Kilgore saying they were "hopelessly deadlocked" and could not reach a decision. The other hold-out, sources said, was a middle-aged black man, the only African-American on the eight-man, four-woman jury. In Texas, an unanimous vote is required for a death sentence.

The judge, who chose to wear earplugs during the trial whenever rap music was played, twice urged jurors to keep working to achieve a verdict. On Wednesday morning, the jury recommended Howard be sentenced to die by injection.

"All of us believed that Ronald Ray Howard was swayed by the music," said Muraida, who took 200 pages of notes during the six-week trial and wore an Egyptian "tree of life" symbol silk-screened on his T-shirt during the final days of deliberation. "But ultimately, in the end, we did not think it lessened the fact that he shot and killed the trooper."

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