Race seemed to have no place in the Snoop Doggy Dogg murder trial, where the famed rapper and his armed bodyguard, both African Americans, were charged with killing a pistol-packing young black man.
But during final arguments late last week, prosecutor Bobby Grace, who is African American, played a race card.
He put an unusual face on it. But it was still the controversial card, played as swiftly and surely as Johnnie Cochran did during the O.J. Simpson trial.
Rather than Cochran's white cops vs. black victim speech, Grace made a more complex appeal to a racially mixed jury with six African American members.
He spoke about another part of the black experience. Grace discussed how black men are stereotyped, a point that undoubtedly resonated with the African American jurors. The victim, he said, had been tarred by the defense with the stereotype of the young black man as someone who is angry, violent and threatening.
Look beyond the stereotype that damages all us African American men, he said. Look at the victim as a human being. Don't accept the defense's picture of him as a frightening gangbanger.
This was a more complex argument than that made by Cochran, made in a case that has little complexity about it. Testimony showed that Snoop Doggy Dogg (Calvin Broadus) and bodyguard McKinley Lee were involved in an argument with the victim, Phillip Woldemariam, who, the prosecution acknowledges, has gang links. The prosecution contends that Woldemariam was shot in the back while fleeing from Broadus and Lee. The defense contends that Woldemariam was reaching for a gun in his waistband, and Lee shot him in self-defense.
Woldemariam, the defense said, was a violent, angry, dangerous gang member whose life stood in bleak comparison to that of Broadus, who had climbed from the rough streets of Long Beach and stretches behind bars to recording and video fame.
To counter the defense's version of Woldemariam's life, Grace discussed two famous novels about the black experience in America.
One was "Native Son" by Richard Wright. It was, as commentator Karen Grigsby Bates wrote, "a searing condemnation of racism and class division. It conjured up an almost palpable, seething black anger over racial prejudice in the body of one Bigger Thomas, the Willie Horton of his day."
The other was "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, who wrote that American blacks were invisible, hidden by stereotypes. It began, "I am an invisible man . . . I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
To win its case, Grace said, the defense tried to make the victim into the Bigger Thomas of "Native Son," into a Willie Horton, the Massachusetts prison inmate who, while out on furlough, raped a Maryland woman, beat her husband and became the villain of law-and-order political campaigns.
"They have to make him be the worst person he could be," he said.
And invisible, without good qualities or promise for the future.
The other day, while the jury was deliberating, I went to Grace's office to talk about his speech. He is an open, friendly, serious man of 35 who grew up in San Bernardino, was a star 145-pound tailback on his high school football team and graduated from UCLA, where he was student body president. He graduated from Loyola Law School and is now a top prosecutor.
Grace said he referred to the two books because "I knew the African Americans on the jury, because a lot of them were college-educated, they would be able to click into 'Native Son' and 'Invisible Man' right away. And I knew if I explained it properly, the other jurors would pick up on where I am coming from."
Grace put a lot of himself into the argument.
I asked him if he had ever been viewed as the Richard Wright character. "There were times at UCLA late at night I got pulled over for no reason and I felt that way," he said. "I felt victimized. I felt I was being singled out because I was an African American man. . . . We are viewed as the epitome of violence and the epitome of ability to be out of control at any minute and as an African American man growing up in our society, you have to deal with it."
What about the "Invisible Man?"
He's been through that, too.
"When you are growing up, you think about what you are going to do. . . . 'What path am I going to choose that will make me and my community visible?' " he said. "In college, that drove me to get involved in student politics and become student body president. I wanted to have an impact on African Americans at UCLA. That's one of the reasons I became a lawyer, and now a prosecutor."
As the case was drawing to a close, prosecutors felt that the defense was succeeding in transforming Phillip Woldemariam into Willie Horton.
Grace and his co-prosecutor, Ed Nison, talked. Grace recalled that "Ed said, 'Look, Bobby, what you've got to do is bring the jury back to at least a neutral point on the victim and you are going to be in a better position to do that because you are African American and you'll have credibility to make that argument.' "
So, with the coolness of a professional gambler, Bobby Grace played the race card.
That he did it in a case like this shows how race has come to dominate so many of the trials in Los Angeles County's tense criminal courts.